The Democrats And Moral Values

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.

7 thoughts on “The Democrats And Moral Values

  1. Ultimately, the rift in the Republican Party is overrated. The Long Island-dwelling investor class wing of the GOP and other robber baron interests may not be too enamored with the party’s radical social agenda, but so long as trillions and trillions of dollars worth of tax giveaways are being proffered along with the evisceration of every safety place and workplace improvement measure enacted during LBJ’s Great Society, FDR’s New Deal and Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Movement, socially moderate bigshots will be more than happy to contend with the culture war being waged by their employees. The real danger for the GOP is losing its grip on the theocrats by failing to deliver what they perceive as their post 11-2 mandate. The $7 store clerks from Arkansas and Georgia concerned about abortion and gay marriage are far more likely to stay at home if the Republicans don’t fill the judiciary with Roy Moore clones than the multi-millionaires in Greenwich, Connecticut, upset with the GOP over these same measures.

    The Republican Party’s base will remain intact and likely experience incremental growth with the expansion of radical evangelicalism. The GOP’s real problem comes from the Democrats and independents suckered into voting for Bush based on the premise that “we can’t change horses midstream” in wartime. When you look at the fact that virtually every current Republican Party initiative (Social Security accounts, bankruptcy reform, sticking government’s nose in the Terri Schiavo case, eliminating the filibuster) is opposed by more than 60% of American voters, it’s pretty obvious that a significant share of 2004 Bush voters aren’t in ideological alignment with their candidate of choice, or anywhere close it for that matter.

    There probably is a significant percentage of American voters who head to the polls looking to punish Hollywood for exposing their children to Janet Jackson’s breast, but how exactly is a vote for the Republican Party a means to that end? The GOP has controlled every branch of government for most of the past four years, yet the only real action taken so far has been altering FCC regulations to allow the media barons who peddle the cultural filth to increase their market share by wiping out competition….thus allowing present-day filth peddlers license to become long-term filth peddlers. Remind me again how this is good for Oklahoma parents who don’t want to see 12-year-old booties shaking on the Disney Channel.

    In 2004, John Kerry played along with the GOP playbook of talking about religion every third sentence….and was branded a phony for his troubles. Given that the Democratic base is becoming more and more secular in response to radicalizing Christianity in the GOP base, it serves very little benefit for the Dems to pretend they have a chance at winning the votes of people who believe they’re going to hell. Kerry made solid gains over Al Gore among mainstream Protestants who seem to be with Democratic voters in wanting to hear about a candidate’s position on education and health care reform rather than how often he prays. The Dems would be well-advised to specifically target Catholics who are with them on every issue but abortion, but have no benefit in pandering to evangelicals.

    The majority of evangelicals are simply bad people. They are the current generation carrying on an ugly history of using “faith” as justification for dehumanizing discrimination. They are the great-grandchildren of slaveholders who used the Bible to justify the involuntary servitude of blacks and all the ugliness that went with that. They are the children of segregationist bigots who, if they had it their way, would still be telling their black neighbors to move to the back of the bus. Presently, is there much doubt that before and after 2001, the pews of Houston area evangelical churches were filled with Enron executives? New generation, same type of people.

    The question is not why the Democrats should be reaching out to these people, but the why mainstream Republicans (actually, I guess non-evangelical Republicans are now a minority) are not condemning them. The indifference of Jay Reding and other economic Republicans about the fact that their political party has been empowered due with the votes of people who hope to see a cataclysmic war erupt in the holy land to usher in the Rapture and the ensuing condemnation of two-thirds of their countrymen to eternal damnation in the fires of hell says alot about where Jay Reding would stand against these people in America’s past. His message is….along as their intolerance and fanaticism lowers my tax burden, I’m more than willing to co-exist with them. If he felt the same way 150 years ago or 50 years ago, African-Americans would still be slaves and blacks would still be drinking from their own water fountains. Something the Dems should think about if they choose to continue the futile effort of converting evangelicals to their side.

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  3. That was one of the most well stated points on the religious/political issue I’ve yet read…. excellent post.

  4. Mark:

    You need to go meet some actual evangelicals, instead of reading about them on Atrios. We are not hard to find. At least 25% of us are Evangelicals.

  5. Jay, what a surprise it is to see you reduce my entire post to one sentence! After all, what else could you…other than addressing my point of how you “country club Republicans” have no more respect for evangelicals than do liberal Democrats, viewing them as mere tools that inadvertently help you construct your dystopian society of endlessly declining top tax rates, Gilded Age-era workplace standards, and a non-existent safety net.

    Rick, I’ve never once read anything by Atrios. However, I have met hundreds of evangelicals….dating back to the days of Pat Robertson’s Presidential campaign when they had nothing better to do than lobby Fox to remove “Married…with Children” from the airwaves. From my boyhood babysitter to present-day co-workers (who would all be considered moderates by today’s evangelical standards), the common denominator seems to be basing votes on the candidate who promises to discriminate against the most people….the candidate who vows to undermine the freedoms of those unlike him or herself.

    A report on CBS News tonight profiled what one “evangelical” Republican from Alabama is proposing in that state’s Legislature….the removal of books from libraries either written by gay authors or featuring gay characters. Again, please inform me why the Democratic Party should make any effort to convert such neanderthals?

  6. Jay, what a surprise it is to see you reduce my entire post to one sentence!

    Even that’s probably giving the argument more credit than it’s due.

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