Democrats, Embrace Morality

For many Democrats, election night marked the execution of Order 66.

And no, Order 66 is not a referendum on California’s ballot.

It was a command given to the clone troopers by Chancellor Palpatine to kill the Jedi, effectively sealing the fate of the Republic and beginning the transition into the malevolent Empire in the Star Wars universe.

That scene from “Revenge of the Sith” is significant for depicting how virtually half the country felt on Nov. 8th — ambushed. Polls, statistics, and models were wrong — even Nate Silver looked sweaty.

How did the Democrats lose so badly? Although some may claim they elected a flawed candidate, dooming their chances from the beginning, there are many reasons to believe that the party is damaged structurally. An analysis of the party’s failure to develop positions grounded in moral and religious terms may provide the answer.

Out of Touch

This might be a hard pill to swallow for those who vote blue, but unless you’re an intellectual elite, a millennial, or a minority, the Democratic brand is toxic. Even if millennials chose Hillary Clinton at the polls, Democrats would still be perceived by the many millennials who voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary as merely a less fatal poison.

You may reason that those choosing not to subscribe are inherently sexist, racist, regressive, and bigoted. You may even find solace in the fact that Clinton won the national popular vote, but that kind of thinking does not win elections. It gives candidates like Donald Trump both the House and Senate and over three fifths of the governorships and state legislatures to the Republican Party. Unless Democrats want to wait a couple of decades for all the baby boomers to pass away, they need to rebrand.

Whether the brand is an accurate representation or a product of the cherry-picking right-wing media is not relevant. In the eyes of millions of Americans, the Democratic Party is a hostile swamp of corruption, relativism, and intolerant “social justice warriors.” No longer are they the standard bearers of New Deal policies but rather the handlers of Goldman Sachs liquidity and flag burning “safe-spaces.”       

Democrats need to focus on progressive reform and establishing policy positions in moral terms. They need to refrain from dismissing “God’s Country” as backward and embrace the earthiness that those not from coastal cities relate to.

Prominent social-psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, in his 2008 TED talk titled “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives” claims, “If you think that half of America votes Republican because they are blinded in this way [by religion or stupidity], then my message to you is that you’re trapped in a moral matrix…” Similarly, in his 2006 Call to Renewal Address regarding religion in the public sphere, then-senator Barack Obama postured, “If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.” That is not to say Democrats should invoke “the blood of Jesus Christ” at every chance they get—or exclude groups with their language. Rather, inspiring an inclusive morality as an aspect of E pluribus unum would do a great deal to heal some of the polarization that has marked 21st century American politics.

If you think that this is problematic or unrepresentative of successful politicking in our democracy, you may be out of touch. While many argue whether or not the United States is filled with bigots and xenophobes, one fact remains certain: Americans are extremely religious.

While an increasing amount of Americans report no affiliation with organized religion, over 75 percent still belong to a church. In addition, roughly 90 percent believe in God. According to Scott Neuman of NPR, “since World War I, every incoming president has made the God reference.” Since 1953, world leaders, members of Congress, and the President have gathered each February for The National Prayer Breakfast — a staple in Washington D.C. More Americans believe in angels than man-made climate change. From temperance to civil rights, religion served as a catalyst for social change movements in our nation’s history. Even Sen. Sanders, who claims Jewish heritage but does not affiliate with any specific religion, invoked the Bible on multiple occasions and often name-dropped Pope Francis as a role model during his campaign.

Channeling the power of religion necessitates more than lobbing rhetoric; it requires framing policy positions as a moral obligation. From preserving the environment to creating an economy that works for all Americans, Democrats need to discuss social justice not as a necessity in of itself but as an inclusive moral task. Democrats must view policy as a means of creating a moral country. It must be a fundamental calling that Americans feel the need to answer. It should not be based on any one religion but rather work as a glue to build a coalition of Americans with similar values. In sum, Democrats need to do a better job at drawing the line in the sand between right and wrong.

But don’t they already do that?

Struggling to Find a Moral Framework

Democratic morality is not a new issue. In a 1989 op-ed, Sen. Sanders, then an Independent Burlington mayor, called the Democrats (and Republicans) a morally bankrupt party, and in an especially prescient New York Times Magazine piece from 2005, Mat Bai discusses the moral perceptions plaguing the party of FDR. According to him, Democrats are caught in a moral contradiction of relativism and an inconsistent government response to social issues. Many party leaders are quoted stating the need to move away from the label of “godless elitism,” and Harold Ford, then-representative from Tennessee quipped, “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.”

But it seems as if the Party has moved further away from Ford’s vision in the last decade. According to Jonathan Merritt of the Atlantic, the era of liberal moral relativism is over. He argues that left-leaning Americans have replaced the relativism of the mid-twentieth century with a new set of virtues; he refers to it as the “shame culture.” Merritt states, “A ‘shame culture’ has now taken its place. The subjective morality of yesterday has been replaced by an ethical code that, if violated, results in unmerciful moral crusades on social media.”

But this narrative is not new. For years mainstream media has covered young liberals as intolerant whiners waving the flag of inclusivity. Again, whether or not this portrait expresses reality is irrelevant. The image is palpable and riles millions of Americans to vote for Republicans. In fact, Merritt argues that for the Republican base, this “shame culture” justifies Trump’s otherwise deplorable actions. He writes, “For his supporters, policies of mass deportation and discrimination are acceptable because they push back against the new moral code.”

While the concept of “shame culture” may suggest a new type of morality, social-psychologists argue that it is this perception that failed to establish any principled moral framework for the Party — costing Democrats many electoral votes.

Jonathan Haidt’s theory on moral psychology elaborates on this failed Party ethos. Moral Foundations Theory outlines the need for Democrats to tap into a language that activates the five “moral foundations” of psychology— that is, innate principles that human beings organize their ethical decisions around. Haidt’s research shows that while Republicans appeal to all five moral foundations: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity, Democrats only activate the first two. And it is this deficiency of morality that often makes them losers.

He argues that morality bore the reasons that Democrats lost in 2004, but the message still resonates 12 years later. However, the 2016 election has served as a reckoning. With the right rebranding, Democrats are poised for a unique opportunity for change.

Too Little Too Late in 2016

The Democratic National Convention, besides depicting the physical manifestation of Clinton’s favorability among the Democratic establishment, exuded a very particular, and very different, kind of tone this year. “The Democrats in primetime this week have spent more time talking about God and faith than the Republicans,” writes Erick Erickson, an influential conservative blogger. And, in his DNC speech, Tim Kaine, a practicing Catholic, said, “Now we had a motto in my school, ‘men for others.’ And it was there that my faith became something vital. My north star for orienting my life. And when I left high school, I knew that I wanted to battle for social justice…” The Senator then chimed, “God has created in our country a beautiful and rich tapestry.”

This atmosphere of patriotism and faith seemed significant if not intentional. It served as a response to Donald Trump, along with his religion-absent language, self-centric rhetoric, and damning portrait of the United States. In fact, regarding President Obama’s address at the DNC, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, John Podhoretz, even tweeted, “Take about five paragraphs out of that Obama speech and it could have been a Reagan speech.Trust me. I know.” This is juxtaposed with Trump’s convention speech in which he made no reference to God or religion, except mentioning the evangelical support he’s not sure he totally deserves. Many conservatives even noted how drastically different the DNC was compared to the RNC, with Trump’s broad-strokes of a dreary, gloomy, and vitriolic America.

Although it was too little, too late, and perceived as an event heavily concerned with taking a jab at Trump’s negativity, this type of messaging is a start. Until recently, many looked at the Republicans as the party of morals and values, but Trump’s campaign and election opened a moral high-ground void that Democrats can easily fill. This cross-section between morality and patriotism will only help the Party’s image. The Republicans can still wave the flag, but that is only superficial patriotism — Democrats have a chance to show the country they can embody the authentic concept of loving one’s country.

The exit-polling from the election is illuminating in many ways. It revealed that fifty-three percent of white women, almost a third of Latino women, and over a third of Latino men voted for a candidate who referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists and talked about sexually assaulting women in private — causing reliably Democratic voting blocs to inch towards Trump this election.

It is time for Democrats to reflect and listen to the forgotten voices of this country, to nominate leaders that will not play identity politics, but focus on actually solving the existential issues facing a large swathe of the population. From universal background checks on guns to raising the minimum wage, campaign finance reform to infrastructure spending, the American people share an overwhelming consensus. While many may support these policies without a moral gloss, for a vast amount of Americans, tapping into this language activates an appeal that holds tremendous influence. Democrats may fare better in the future provided they build a coalition of those concerned with progressive reform and those that share values reasoned in moral thought.