Matt Bai has an interesting piece on the Democratic Party’s problem with moral values. Despite the some typical Republican-bashing (it’s the Times afterall), Bai makes a very astute observation about the makeup of the Democratic Party:
The deeper problem lies in the party’s positions, which have sent much of America a confusing and not especially credible message on questions of morality. While the Democratic Party traces its ideological lineage on economic issues to the New Deal, its DNA on social issues was created by the union of the two principal movements of the 1960’s: civil rights and the antiwar counterculture. The two are generally discussed as part of the same transformative social force of the era, but in fact, in the political arena, they reinforced very different instincts. The civil rights movement legitimized the idea of legislating and codifying morality. Where activist lawmakers or judges could find a constitutional rationale for overruling states and communities on a discriminatory social policy, Democrats came to believe that they had not just the right but also the responsibility to intervene. The counterculture, however, was all about radical individualism — the attitude Republicans now snidely describe as ”if it feels good, do it.” In the context of the time, these contradictory ideas weren’t hard to reconcile; to Democrats, and to most Americans, government’s integrating swimming pools seemed clearly to be right, while government’s banning books seemed clearly to be wrong. But as often happens in law and politics, the specific circumstances that created each impulse were outlived by the conflicting precedents they established.
Everyone’s making mountains out of molehills about the supposed split between social and fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party — likely following the DNC’s astroturfing playbook. The real divide is in the Democratic Party — the Democrats know that 60 million Americans are evangelical Christians of some form or another, and they know that in order to win elections, the Democrats can’t avoid talking about moral values. Even the liberal Progressive Policy Institute can read the writing on the wall:
An analysis by a Democratic think tank argues that Democrats are suffering from a severe “parent gap” among married people with children, who say the entertainment industry is lowering the moral standards of the country.
The study, published last week by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), the policy arm of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, admonishes Democrats to pay more attention to parental concerns about “morally corrosive forces in the culture,” and warns that the party will not fare better with this pivotal voting bloc until they do…
“Democrats will not do better with married parents until they recognize one simple truth: Parents have a beef with popular culture. As they see it, the culture is getting ever more violent, materialistic, and misogynistic, and they are losing their ability to protect their kids from morally corrosive images and messages,” said the study’s author, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project of Rutgers University and a senior fellow at PPI.
The Democrats have two ways of approaching this issue: the right way, and the wrong way. Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford has the right way:
There are two basic arguments being put forward by national Democrats on how to change their image, and at a breakfast for Democratic officials in Washington last month, I heard two of the party’s more serious thinkers lay them out. The first speaker, Harold Ford, the young representative from Tennessee, argued that Democrats needed to speak the same spiritual language as Republicans if they didn’t want to continue to be seen as godless elitists. ”We can separate church and state,” Ford said in a preacherly cadence, ”but, by golly, we ought to be able to say that our spirit, our faith and our morals influence somewhat how we treat people and how we shape laws and how we implement policy.”
And as usual, Howard Dean has the wrong way:
After Ford sat down, Howard Dean, the party’s new chairman, counseled that if Democrats really wanted to win back churchgoers, they had to make the case that traditionally liberal programs like health care and community-development block grants were moral values, too. ”I am tired of having decent Americans who don’t happen to wear their religious beliefs on their sleeves called immoral,” Dean said.
Dean has absolutely no clue how to relate with Middle America, especially evangelical Christians. Unfortunately for the Democrats, that’s supposed to be his job. Morality is not a function of government. There’s absolutely nothing moral or just about saying that you’d do good things with someone else’s money. Dean’s churlish attempts to equate morality with confiscatory taxation has fallen flat on its face. The fact that you have Howard Dean, poster-boy for Northeastern secular elitism trying to talk like Jonathan Edwards only shows how far the Democrats have to go on moral issues.
The Democrats completely fail to understand the backlash against popular culture. They don’t understand the values of Middle America, especially families. The Democratic Party is the party of the bicoastal elites, and especially the Hollywood left. However, families these days are far more attuned to the corrosive effects of popular culture on the family than they have been before. When rap lyrics celebrate murder and mysogeny, parents should be concerned. When much of popular entertainment is a moral wasteland, parents should be concerned. When a political party doesn’t have the faintest recognition of these factors, they shouldn’t be surprised when they start losing the family vote.
It’s more than just a matter of (mis)quoting Scripture. It’s a matter of recognizing the moral climate in this country and doing what can be done to promote healthy families. Not only do the Democrats have almost nothing in their platform to appeal to families, but they seem downright hostile to voters of faith. The few Democrats like Sen. Lieberman who do speak convincingly on faith are quickly marginalized by the secular elites in the party structure. Even when Hillary Clinton (who is rapidly marking herself as by far the smartest Democratic politician out there) speaks on matters of faith, it doesn’t have quite the resonance. The Clintons aren’t exactly known for their moral rectitude. When President Bush speaks out on faith, it does have resonance because he’s speaking from the heart. Bush doesn’t have to pretend to be a born-again Christian – he is one.
That’s why the Democrats efforts to rail against “theocracy” are so politically idiotic. Americans aren’t afraid of “theocracy.” What the Democrats call “theocracy” is decidedly in the mainstream. Voters don’t want politics separate from morality – they want moral politicians. What voters care about are the things the effect them. The filth on television. A culture that denigrates healthy relationships. A society that makes it harder to raise healthy and successful children. Those things hurt Middle America. Terri Schaivo didn’t reflect well on the Republicans, but it didn’t hurt them either.
Most Americans know right from wrong. Moral judgements and moral reasoning are inextricably bound into the fabric of American society, even when many on the left want to unweave that fabric. Support for abortion on demand won’t drop because of protests or placards, they’ll drop because women can see the face of the 12 week fetus the left wants to argue is a subhuman mass of tissue. Support for religious values is part of the American experience. We want our politicians to have faith, because we know that in times of crisis faith is an invaluable resource. We know that the values of faith aren’t good because some hermit in Judea happened to think they were, but because centuries of human experience supports them.
The more the Democrats rail against people of faith, the more they make hysterical proclamations about “theocracy”, the more they position themselves as a party that represents the values of the secular elite over those of Middle America, the more elections they’ll lose. All the pandering in the world can’t make up for the constant reminders of who the Democrats really are. On matters of faith, the Democrats problem isn’t perception, it’s substance. Until the Democrats can take faith seriously and stop treating evangelical voters like children who can be placated by Bible stories they regard as little more than bedtime fairy tales, the evangelical, Catholic, and family votes will continue to swing towards the GOP.