Why Americans Hate Democrats—A Dialogue / Moralize, liberally.

Slate Editor's note: The day after the election, Slate's political
writers tackled the question of why the Democratic Party—which has now
lost five of the past seven presidential elections and solidified its
minority status in Congress—keeps losing elections. Chris Suellentrop
says that John Kerry was too nuanced and technocratic, while George W.
Bush offered a vision of expanding freedom around the world. William
Saletan argues that Democratic candidates won't win until they again
cast their policies the way Bill Clinton did, in terms of values and
moral responsibility. Timothy Noah contends that none of the familiar
advice to the party—move right, move left, or sit tight—seems likely to
help. Slate asked a number of wise liberals to take up the question of
why Americans won't vote for the Democrats. Click here to read the
other entries.

The esteemed liberal blogger Atrios is discouraging an orgy of
Democratic recriminations: "What matters isn't what was done wrong, but
what needs to be done right for the '06 elections." I agree. But
discussing the former helps us think about the latter—and has the added
therapeutic value of letting me vent some frustration over John Kerry's
ultra-risk-averse campaign.

In state after state, Bush voters cited two issues as key: terrorism
and "moral issues." I think both of these Bush assets could have been
drained of some value by an adventurous and creatively eloquent
Democratic candidate.

On the terrorism front, Kerry failed to erase a paradox: The public
gives Bush low marks on Iraq but says he's doing a good job in the war
on terror. Of course, in truth Bush's failure in Iraq has made America
more vulnerable to terrorism. Kerry nibbled around the edges of this
issue. He said the Iraq war had diverted resources from the fight
against al-Qaida, annoyed allies, etc. He never stressed the central
point: The war has made lots of Muslims hate America, and the more
Muslims who hate America, the worse shape we're in.

With this theme nailed down, Kerry could have gone on to show how Iraq
is emblematic of Bush's larger failure: indifference to how the world
regards America, even as we enter a technological age in which
grass-roots hatred abroad will morph easily into massive lethality at
home. In other words: Regardless of what happens in Iraq, four more
years of Bush will mean your children are more likely to die in a
terrorist attack.

Instead, Kerry's critique of the war made it sound like an isolated
mistake and even a reversible one: Misdirected resources can be
redirected, and annoyed allies will ultimately forgive. Conveying the
full proportions of Bush's Iraq failure without sounding like a wimp
would have been a rhetorical challenge, but, as I argued in an op-ed
after the Democratic Convention, it would have been worth the risk.

Four years from now, a sufficiently charismatic Democratic standard
bearer could not only make this broad-gauged critique of Bush's foreign
policy but go beyond it by depicting the war on terror as, in part, a
moral challenge with uplifting aspects: Our mission includes
demonstrating America's basic goodness to the world, helping to draw
the world's diverse nations and peoples into a single community, etc.
In any event: We can't afford to cede the "national greatness" theme to
the neocons. Evangelicals are hardly the only voters who would like to
see America as a nation with a calling.

As for domestic "moral issues:" They seem to leave Democrats in a
quandary. The salient "moral" issues—abortion, gay rights, school
prayer—aren't issues on which substantial compromise is thinkable. If
you imagine a Democratic Party that caves on these, you're imagining a
party that has lost both philosophical integrity and vital

But compromise on these issues may not be a prerequisite for
attracting some voters who care about them. Though these issues are
symptoms of moral anxiety in Middle America, I think the anxiety's
ultimate source is more diffuse, and includes concerns that even many
liberals share.

Especially if they're parents. I've never met an American parent—left,
right, center—who seemed enthusiastic about the culture in which
children now grow up. Unless you put your kids in an isolation tank,
their electronic and social environments will conspire to channel them
toward MTV-land: a realm in which sex, money, alcohol, and rock-solid
abs jockey for pre-eminence in the hierarchy of human needs. And along
the way these kids will encounter lots of glorified violence—more of a
concern on the left than the right, maybe, but something very few
parents applaud.

This aura of amorality unsettles evangelicals and other conservatives,
and energizes their position on the salient "moral" issues. They think
school prayer could help stem the tide of MTV culture, and they see
abortion-rights advocates as hedonists who want to "have their fun and
not pay for it" as my high-school history teacher back in San Antonio,
Texas, complained. A vote against abortion is a vote against Britney

In reacting against MTV-land, morally conservative parents home-school
their kids, or send them to religious schools, or in some other way
seek seclusion from secular culture. And the resulting cocoon cuts
their chances of encountering anyone who might change their views—like,
say, a homosexual who turns out to be not so bad once you get to know

Aside from Tipper Gore and a few others, liberals have failed to stress
that—whatever their views on abortion, gay marriage, and prayer in the
schools—they share conservatives' underlying unease with pop-culture
values. You don't have to be Jerry Falwell to feel like moving to
another planet when you see the Jerry Springer Show.

I think Kerry had a chance to seize this issue back in January, before
he was the Democratic nominee. The moment—what might have been his
Sister Souljah moment—came during halftime at the Super Bowl, when
Justin Timberlake ripped Janet Jackson's clothes off.

Criticism of Timberlake and Jackson came mainly from the right.
Liberals scoffed at the idea of getting worked up over "one exposed
breast." But the problem wasn't the breast; the problem was how it was
exposed—through an act of stylized male sexual aggression, an apparent
preamble to rape. (After Timberlake's advance, Jackson pretended to
recoil in fear.) Does anyone with a son or a daughter want to see such
behavior glorified? For that matter, do liberal feminists?

This wasn't the most egregious specimen of contemporary culture, but
it was about the most prominent—a national, even global, advertisement
of American values. By denouncing it, Kerry could have endeared himself
to millions of American parents and gotten pundits commenting on his
maverick moral streak. Then on to Jerry Springer ...

One thing that may have kept Kerry and other Democrats away from this
issue is the dreaded liberal cultural elite. Whenever you start
moralizing in a remotely Victorian way, some artists, writers, and
directors start screaming about censorship. (And Katha Pollitt gets
really annoyed—as we may see soon!)

Of course, they've got it wrong: Censorship is officially imposed
restraint (e.g., the fines that the FCC levied over the incident), not
mere criticism. What's more, criticism can be an antidote to
censorship. Moral sanction and legal sanction are the only two kinds of
sanction there are, and, human nature being what it is, a society needs
one or the other to stay healthy.

If Democrats felt a little freer to moralize, they wouldn't, of
course, take over Bush's evangelical base. Still, without giving an
inch on gay rights, abortion rights, school prayer, etc., they can make
some inroads into the "moral" component of Republican support. But so
long as they consider it their sacred duty to applaud Quentin Tarantino
or to quietly endure Britney Spears, they may stay where they were this
week: 140,000 votes shy in Ohio.

P.S.: I suspect liberal bloggers may organize multicity demonstrations
on Inauguration Day. If so, my advice is to make the demonstrations
thematically simple and hence broadly inclusive. The basic message,
chanted again and again, should be along the lines of: "He doesn't
speak for us." That's something lots of us can agree on, and something
the world should hear.

Robert Wright, a visiting fellow at Princeton University's Center for
Human Values and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, runs
the Web site and is the author of The Moral Animal and
Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.

By Robert Wright Posted Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004, at 9:37 AM PT Article
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