Why we need a return to moral politics: The GOP's health care assault is only the latest example

Progressives must reclaim the tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi and King — and deny the right the moral high ground

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published July 16, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

Nelson Mandela; Henry David Thoreau; Martin Luther King Jr.   (Getty/Walter Dhladhla/wynnter/Reg Lancaster)
Nelson Mandela; Henry David Thoreau; Martin Luther King Jr. (Getty/Walter Dhladhla/wynnter/Reg Lancaster)

Newsflash: Donald Trump is really unpopular! Worse than unpopular, actually: An early June PPP poll found 47 percent support for the president's impeachment, while 43 percent were opposed.

But as unpopular as Trump is, the Republicans' policy agenda is far worse. Their health care reform bill is the most unpopular piece of legislation in 30 years, with support dropping below 20% in three polls that came out just after Mitch McConnell pulled the Senate version. Polls in three battleground states  actually show Trump’s approval more than 10 points higher than the GOP health care bill.

It’s astonishing to see a major party so committed to something so profoundly unpopular. The only way the Republican Party has gotten here is by decades of running on an ideological vision, as described in the book "Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats" (see my review here and application to health care, interviewing co-author David Hopkins, here). That ideology, in turn, is founded on presumptions of moral superiority: “real Americans,” “makers vs. takers,” “the Moral Majority,” etc. Conservatism is always about defense of hierarchy, with different flavors of moral superiority playing to different branches of the conservative movement. Now, however, that claim has reached an absurd end, as Paul Krugman pointed out on Twitter.

"The thing I keep returning to on the Senate bill is the contrast between the intense hardship it imposes and the triviality of the gains,” Krugman said. “Losing health insurance -- especially if you're older, low-income, and unhealthy, which are precisely the people hit -- is a nightmare" that would affect 20 million people, in exchange for tax cuts that (while huge monetarily) would barely be noticeable in terms of the lifestyles of those who receive them. “So vast suffering imposed to hand the rich a favor they'll barely even notice. How do we make sense of this, politically or morally?”

Krugman’s moral argument here is in fact  a utilitarian one in the spirit of Jeremy Bentham. It’s hardly the only one that could be offered — which is why ethical and moral frameworks need to be debated in our national politics. Krugman’s comment highlights the need to make moral arguments in general — a need that liberals and Democrats have neglected far too long. Sure, they make moral arguments all the time, but they don’t make them central in their politics, and that has helped conservatives falsely claim to have a lock on moral politics. Now with the GOP's plans to deprive 22 million of health insurance — perhaps leading to nearly 29,000 premature deaths every year — that claim of moral superiority has become patently absurd.

The very notion of universal rights is historically central to liberalism, and has been opposed by conservatives repeatedly. The expansion of recognized rights, and of rights-holders, is a history of once-radical ideas being incorporated into the liberal universal rights framework in the face of tenacious conservative resistance. Marriage equality and universal health care are just the most recent examples of this moral evolution of our whole society. While conservatives should be welcome to join the broad consensus at last, they should not be allowed to claim the moral high ground they have spent so many years attacking, often with demonic fury.

Take, for example, the fraught question of religious freedom. The evolution of ideas and arguments supporting religious freedom—and opposing torture to repress it—were historically central to the emergence of modern liberalism out of the wars of Reformation, starting with the German Peasants' War of 1524-26, in which more than 100,000 died. Religious tolerance began as a matter of pragmatism — unless Europeans stopped killing each other for differing religious beliefs, war would never end. But gradually, the idea of tolerance as a positive good took hold, along with the recognition that torturing someone to change their beliefs could not produce the desired result of a genuine heartfelt conversion.

This line of thinking reached its fullest expression in John Locke’s "A Letter Concerning Toleration." Locke is equally famous for his "Second Treatise on Civil Government," which advanced the idea of the social contract and consent of the governed as the legitimate foundation for civil government. What’s usually forgotten is Locke’s "First Treatise," devoted to refuting the dominant conservative ideology of the time — government justified by the divine right of kings. As always, forgetting what conservatives stood for in the past is indispensable for taking them seriously today.

With far too little awareness of how modern liberalism came to be, we fail to appreciate what monstrous moral evils it struggled against, and how precious and worthy of defense its moral heritage is. Those who tend to remember it best are those who continue the struggle to expand it — women, minorities, gays and lesbians, the disabled, etc. A vital part of this ongoing struggle is the philosophy and practice of nonviolent civil disobedience, as formulated by Henry David Thoreau in response to the Mexican-American War, transformed into a philosophy of mass struggle by Mahatma Gandhi in the struggle for India’s independence, brought back to America by Bayard Rustin, James Lawson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and taken up around the world by figures ranging from Thich Nhat Hanh to Nelson Mandela, as well as countless nonviolent movements that have flourished over the past 50 years.

This is a rich philosophical tradition drawing from multiple religious sources — starting with Thoreau’s Unitarian eclecticism and only growing richer and more diverse over time with Rustin’s Quakerism, Nhat Hanh’s Buddhism and King’s Christian invocations of the Hebrew prophets as examples of how rich and vital it has become.

In light of this history, perhaps the best answer to the conservative claim of moral superiority is, "Let's have a look." Let’s have a really robust debate, in other words. There are indeed moral arguments for allowing thousands of people to die from lack of health insurance — arguments that most folks would find repugnant once they’ve been exposed to the light of day.

One such argument comes from Ayn Rand, centered around the notion that freedom, as she defines it, is the pre-eminent moral concern. Government limits freedom, and thus is inherently evil, she argues, even when it seems to do something good — like provide health care, Social Security and so on. Rand, of course, didn’t believe her own arguments in the end. When she needed it, she agreed to receive Social Security and Medicare coverage in her old age — though of course, she had a good explanation for it!

The more basic problem with Rand’s arguments are how badly conceived they are, factually. For example:

The ideological root of statism (or collectivism) is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases to whatever it deems to be its own “good.”

So, statism is bad, individualism good (in this formulation). There is no difference between a state that nurtures and protects individual rights, with an intricate system of laws and civic institutions — a free press, First Amendment rights, etc. — and a brutal, authoritarian dictatorship. And there’s also no difference between a highly principled pro-social individual like Thoreau and a profoundly anti-social serial killer like William Hickman, who, as author Michael Prescott uncovered, was the model for Rand’s first prototypical hero, Danny Renahan. Prescott quotes an excerpt about Renahan, from Rand's journal:

[Renahan] is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness - [resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people ... Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should.

The “organ for understanding the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people” is precisely what psychopaths lack, as pioneering researcher Hervey Cleckley explained in his classic, "The Mask of Sanity." If you see a serial killer as a moral exemplar, then it’s easy to argue that 22 million people should lose their health care. We should welcome conservatives to make that argument at every possible opportunity.

Indeed, that’s implicitly what they’re doing right now. House Speaker Paul Ryan has been the GOP’s prime mover in this effort — aimed not just at repealing Obamacare, but dismantling Medicaid as well. Ryan was a rabid Rand enthusiast until 2012, when he unconvincingly rejected her for her atheism, while running for vice president on the Republican ticket.

“I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are,” Ryan once said. “There is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through Ayn Rand’s writings and works.” His long-term goal of dismantling the welfare state is Randian through and through, and has not altered one iota since he made a show of distancing himself from her.

The Christian right has a different sort of moral argument leading to exactly the same result. There’s a widespread belief among right-wing Christians that government should have nothing to do with providing health care — that’s up to the church or the family. If people die, they die. It’s what the Bible says. This comes out of an extremist ideology, explored by religious studies scholar Julie Ingersoll in "Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism." (I interviewed her here in 2015.) As Ingersoll makes clear, reconstructionist ideas are widely popular on the religious right among people who’ve never even heard of the ideology behind them. We should welcome these arguments into the full light of day, in all their dimensions.

What makes conservatives’ moral arguments compelling is first and foremost the fact that they make them — over and over and over. They are repeated ritualistically, as credos not subject to inquiry, questioning and debate —things that make up the lifeblood of a living democracy. Historically, "Asymmetric Politics" recalls that the conservative movement fused three main strands: religious and cultural conservatism, economic conservatism (both libertarian and neoliberal) and national-security conservatism (anti-communism morphing into neoconservatism):

All three traditions extensively employed symbolic rhetoric. As John Saloma, founding president of the Ripon Society (the most prominent moderate Republican organization of the era) later observed, conservatives “appropriated powerful words and symbols— freedom, family, work, religion— in a way that caught the liberals unaware.”

What’s truly astonishing is that all these decades later, liberals still continue to be caught unaware. As I argued last week in this space, conservatives don’t care more about freedom than liberals do — but they have invested a great deal of effort into promoting that claim, and reshaping the meaning of freedom to fit their needs. The American people have long favored more conservative ideas ideologically, and liberal ones on a practical level — hence the archetypal Tea Party cry: “Keep the government out of  my Medicare!” The first book to highlight this divide in 1967, "The Political Beliefs of Americans," concluded with a section titled “The Need for a Restatement of American Ideology”:

The paradox of a large majority of Americans qualifying as operational liberals while at the same time a majority hold to a conservative ideology has been repeatedly emphasized in this study. We have described this state of affairs as mildly schizoid, with people believing in one set of principles abstractly while acting according to another set of principles in their political behavior. But the principles according to which the majority of Americans actually behave politically have not yet been adequately formulated in modern terms …

There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people’s wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.

Needless to say, that restatement never came about. No organized effort was ever mounted on its behalf. People continue to believe strongly in activist problem-solving government along with the fiction of the free market, and liberals have done nothing to close that reality gap. Meanwhile, as "Asymmetric Politics" describes, movement conservatives and their wealthy backers have poured enormous resources into a similarly ambitious ideological project on the right. They have advanced their moral vision repeatedly, even in the face of repeated disasters. Liberals have repeatedly failed to take advantage of those failures, in part because they have never engaged in the sort of broad-based movement building that conservatives have, and have never fashioned an ideological framework that would make sense of all the various pieces that they have successfully advanced.

Another landmark book that sheds light on the situation is George Lakoff’s 1996 "Moral Politics" (my review here). Lakoff explained how two different parenting styles, described by researcher Diana Baumrind, structure the ways conservatives and liberals see the world across a broad range of political issues. Conservatives rely on a punitive “strict father” model — described by Baumrind as “demanding” and “unresponsive” — found in books like James Dobson's "Dare to Discipline." That model promotes moral hierarchies but does not produce the sort of autonomous moral agents it claims to. Doing what you’re told, or else, for 18 to 20 years does not prepare you to make sensible moral decisions for yourself.

Liberals, in contrast, rely on a “nurturant parent” model — described as “demanding” and “responsive” — which is found in the majority of modern parenting and child-care books. It is not the same as permissive parenting, described by Baumrind as “undemanding” and “unresponsive,” despite decades of conservative claims to the contrary. Nurturant parents have high expectations, but adjust in response to their children’s own autonomous development: They ask their children to “be the best you,” rather than “be just like me.”

In an essay last July, "Understanding Trump," Lakoff presented a concise explanation of the strict father model and its power:

What do social issues and the politics have to do with the family? We are first governed in our families, and so we grow up understanding governing institutions in terms of the governing systems of families.

In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, which is taken to be what is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they are in charge of. When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world. What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. This reasoning shows up in conservative politics in which the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving, and the rich as deserving their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility, not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you; society has nothing to do with it. You are responsible for yourself, not for others — who are responsible for themselves.

In this model, moral strength is the primary concern, followed by moral self-interest linking self-discipline to self-reliance. Moral nurturance comes last, in service of moral strength and self-interest. Lakoff went on to explain the importance of hierarchy in this model:

The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality (the strict father version), and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be (and traditionally has been) a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate. The hierarchy is: God above Man, Man above Nature, The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak), The Rich above the Poor, Employers above Employees, Adults above Children, Western culture above other cultures, America above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: Men above women, Whites above Nonwhites, Christians above nonChristians, Straights above Gays. ...

Family-based moral worldviews run deep. Since people want to see themselves as doing right not wrong, moral worldviews tend to be part of self-definition — who you most deeply are. And thus your moral worldview defines for you what the world should be like. When it isn’t that way, one can become frustrated and angry.

Lakoff goes on to describe how this applies to three different kinds of conservatives supporting Trump at the time — white evangelical Christians, laissez-faire free-market conservatives and pragmatic conservatives. The most important thing to take away from this analysis is the understanding of why morality is politically crucial for conservatives, it’s profoundly tied up in their self-definition at a pre-political level, which then extends as a guiding organizing process in their political development.

The liberal nurturant-parent model is profoundly different. Most notably, its order of concerns are reversed (moral nurturance first, moral self-interest second and moral strength in service to the first two) and nurturant parents encourage children’s moral development by engaging in dialogue rather than laying down the law. The result is a much less precisely defined morality, more subject to variation, nuance and complexity, which is well suited to engaging with real-world complexities — the realm where Americans as a whole tend to be overwhelmingly liberal in outlook. It’s hardly surprising that activists in this tradition would focus much more on problem-solving in particular settings, rather than on systematized moral concerns — exactly as "Asymmetric Politics" describes.

The lack of hierarchical control in nurturant parent model is the key to its success in producing healthy, morally autonomous adults. But it’s also less conducive to producing a political culture organized as if for war. Still, both models give rise to some degree of moral pluralism, as there are different ways in which the models get expressed — the three different branches of the conservative movement cited in "Asymmetric Politics," for example. But these inconsistencies have been much more problematic for liberals.

Conservatives spend a lot of time trying to shape their moral arguments for the purposes at hand. A great deal of effort was put into the fusion of economic and cultural conservatism at National Review and elsewhere, for example. The results have not been impressive from a philosophical point of view, but have made for highly effective propaganda, by which thousands of conservative activists have learned how to hide those contradictions, perhaps most importantly from themselves. This, in turn, gave them tremendous confidence in going out into the world and proselytizing, reinforced by their implicit belief in a moral hierarchy with themselves on top. The built-in assumption of moral superiority is a powerful intoxicant. Being wrong is simply not an option. Neither is learning from one's mistakes.

That should not and cannot be the case for liberals. But there are strong cultural barriers to be overcome. The center-left tends to dichotomize between developing ideas in a rarefied objective framework, but must sell its ideas in a more squalid marketing framework. What’s missing is the ancient art of rhetoric -- the notion of persuasive argument as something potentially noble, uplifting and enlightening in itself. It’s odd that so many cultural producers on the center-left should excel at this kind of work, while those engaged in politics remain so seemingly clueless about it.

I referred earlier to Paul Krugman’s use of a utilitarian argument worthy of Jeremy Bentham. But that’s only one type of moral argument that can be made. Indeed, the richer the moral debate, the better. The point is not to argue that one and only one moral position can be true, as conservatives so often claim to believe. Rather, it’s to say that we benefit from considering as many different perspectives as possible, even if we end up rejecting some in the end.

Millennia of human history have produced all manner of moral arguments, but they tend to fall into several different broad categories, within two main branches: consequentialist ethics — those, like utilitarianism, which judge acts by their outcomes — and non-consequentialist ethics, which either judge acts based on some prescriptive basis (such as divine law, Kantian "duty ethics," etc.) or focus on the moral character of the actor, as in Aristotle.

These latter arguments are the sorts that conservatives tend to hijack, but they also provide some of the strongest progressive moral arguments as well. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, frequently engaged in arguments involving moral character. “The Drum Major Instinct” is a classic example. As I pointed out in a 1995 commemoration of his birthday, that speech demolishes conservative efforts to use his phrase “the content of their character” as a cudgel to destroy everything he struggled for:

He did not falsely oppose the ideas of personal responsibility and commitment to social justice. Rather, he saw the commitment to social justice — rooted in the Gospels — as a means for transforming mere egotism and blind ambition into engines of individual redemption — the crowning reward of personal responsibility.

Indeed, the whole history of nonviolent civil disobedience cited above, from Thoreau, Gandhi, King and Mandela through Occupy, the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter — is in part a history of an unfolding, dynamic character ethic whose power may still be only in its infancy.

After hundreds of generations, it would be foolish of us to expect a sudden, final resolution of the "right way" to do ethics. But by laying out the moral basis of our arguments we can be more honest, self-aware, deliberative and responsive to the views of others, all of which are desirable in a democracy. The more fully we engage in advancing and debating moral arguments, the more likely we become to make beneficial decisions that gain broad support over time, rather than losing support because people’s differing views and interests were not adequately considered.

This is hardly a new idea. It’s arguably what most of the leading Founders believed: If it’s “traditional values” you want, that’s what they actually look like. Liberals should not only be proud to claim such values, they should forcefully reject conservatives' attempts to distort or pervert them. Decades of “moral politics,” as defined by the right, have only given us President Donald Trump and a health care plan straight out of the mind of a Charles Dickens villain.


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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