Questioning Political Morality

By Frank Blechman

In the last few weeks, I have spoken to several Democratic politicians and listened to speeches or read statements by Democratic candidates. Many times, I have heard exhortations to action from these folks, saying “If Republicans win control of the House of Delegates, and/or the governor’s mansion, they will roll back all of the progress we have made in the last few years.” Some have gone so far as to assert, “We are in the fight of our lives.” They then recite the long list of legislative accomplishments passed and programs funded.

Personally, I approve of the legislative accomplishments and the programs funded. I hope that when the General Assembly meets in a few weeks to allocate billions in federal money flowing into Virginia and the budget surplus, they will fund even more programs that I like. Specifically, we know we need more money in health care (especially mental health), education, transportation, job creation, and small business support. I recognize that programs such as broadband access, affordable housing, and accessible child care are essential to improving each of those functional areas.

The case for good programs is the wrong one to be making in this environment. The political fight in which we find ourselves is a cultural one. . . . Republicans have gotten much better over the last generation at articulating moral foundations for the positions they take.

Yet, I think the case for good programs is the wrong one to be making in this environment. The political fight in which we find ourselves is a cultural one. Republicans and Democrats can be equally hypocritical. However, Republicans have gotten much better over the last generation at articulating moral foundations for the positions they take.

In this cultural competition, Democrats have to be much more clear about the values that underlie the legislation and the programs we create. Looking at ethical systems all around the world, a former University of Virginia researcher of political morality, Jonathan Haidt, hypothesized, in his landmark book The Righteous Mind, that there are six primary foundations for the concepts of right and wrong (in alphabetical order): authority, caring, fairness, liberty, loyalty, and sanctity. He noted that Democrats rarely articulate the moral basis for our work. He said that when we do address moral reasoning, we tend to focus on only two of those systems: caring and fairness. Republicans, in contrast, address all six foundations, thereby making a stronger case and connecting with more people.

There are six primary foundations for the concepts of right and wrong (in alphabetical order): authority, caring, fairness, liberty, loyalty, and sanctity.

If we want to be taken seriously when we do talk about underlying values, we have to be more coherent and consistent. For example:

We Democrats say we are against big money (particularly corporate money), but most of our candidates chase it as much as their opponents.

We Democrats say we are against gerrymandering, but members of the General Assembly have historically done it when they had the chance, and split in 2020 about whether they really wanted a constitutional amendment on the ballot to put a nonpartisan commission into the process.

We Democrats say we are for diversity and opportunity, but women and candidates of color still have to swim upstream to get nominations.

We Democrats say we are for equal justice for all, but have struggled to redefine the proper role for force in maintaining order and enforcing laws.

We Democrat s object to being called socialists or “far left extremists”. We say we oppose the politics of fear, division and name-calling, then call our opponents “extreme”, “far-right”, “bigots,” and “fascists.”

We Democrats love to say that public budgets are a manifestation of our shared values. But we rarely then explain actual budgets that way.

Let’s take just one example: Why do Democrats support public education, as compared with vouchers, which could be used at public or private schools? We accept food and housing voucher programs, which apply almost entirely to private providers. We underwrite health insurance to make health care provided by private practitioners available for more people. We support public money going to private day care for both children and elders.

So, what’s the problem?

Is support for public schools, as conservatives assert, just pandering to teachers’ unions (loyalty)?

Is this about separation of church and state, avoiding support for parochial educational institutions (sanctity, in reverse)?

Is this a judgement about how private schools have discriminated in the past?

Is this about power and control over what children learn (authority)?

Is this about equality of opportunity, support for social mobility (caring, fairness)?

We could do the same for any other issue. Can we Democrats explain in moral terms why we believe government should do a certain thing? Why should we do it the way that we do? Why should costs be shared in a particularly way? Is this just a huge collection of bad old outdated ideas hanging around through inertia?

I am waiting for a statewide Democratic candidate to say to any audience, “I think government has a crucial role to play creating resources that serve everybody’s (fairness) real needs (caring). I believe, as our founders did, that all of us are created (sanctity) with certain rights (liberty) and responsibilities to each other (loyalty). I believe that government exists only with the consent of the governed (authority), and that the first test of public leadership is always: Do we listen to you?”

I am waiting for a statewide Democratic candidate to say to any audience, “I think government has a crucial role to play creating resources that serve everybody’s (fairness) real needs (caring). I believe, as our founders did, that all of us are created (sanctity) with certain rights (liberty) and responsibilities to each other (loyalty). I believe that government exists only with the consent of the governed (authority), and that the first test of public leadership is always: Do we listen to you?

If that kind of statement framed every claim about programs undertaken or grants applied, we might improve our credibility with, maybe even our attractiveness to, voters. It is not just about how much we have done or will do. It is about explaining why these are the right things to do.

 

 



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