Common wisdom these days seems to suggest that progressives have a political Achilles heel: morality. Regardless of the real impact that religious belief had on the 2004 election (1), it’s overwhelmingly true that Republicans have tapped into an issue which is neglected by Democrats. If we want to stop the Democrats’ continued rightward drift, it’s important to understand morality, society, and politics at a deeper level than the discussion is being conducted today.
My current thinking on progressive morality started with a discussion I had back in February of this year with a friend who said (roughly): "the left loses support in some quarters because it fails to provide the linkage to morality that many, if not most, people want." Since that comment, I’ve been trying to understand how progressives can create a credible civil and secular morality for our public sphere.
I now believe that to be the wrong approach.
The place to begin is to understand how moral social institutions have eroded within the United States, leading to a sense of "moral decline." (2) Over the last fifty years, many of the "intermediate" structures of American society have been overwhelmed or dismantled by the evolution of our economy and culture. Small communities have evolved into relatively anonymous urban and suburban neighborhoods, given the mass availability of the automobile (3). Community groups and other secular social groups have waned in popularity. The ubiquity of transportation technology and the massive increases in corporate scale have led to mass migration of adults away from their families and places of birth; an increasing number of Americans live in a different state from the one in which they grew up. (4)
One effect of anonymity, lack of community structure, and mobility on urban and suburban dwellers is to remove allegiences to intermediate institutions — neighborhoods within cities, small towns, social clubs and groups, civic organizations — that help provide both ethical guidance and gradual, extra-legal ethical sanctions on behavior. In effect, without really choosing to do so, we now live in a society without meaningful intermediate structure between nuclear families and the society as a whole. In the process, we have become a society where the only ethical sanctions available are those individuals place upon themselves, those available within a functioning family unit, and ultimately provided by law enforcement within the society at large. And since the power of families to sanction unethical behavior is limited once we reach adulthood, we increasingly look to society as a whole, government, and the legal system to provide moral sanction and structure.
In the preceding paragraphs, I glossed over the role of churches in the past and present. Obviously, churches have been — and remain — primary among the "intermediate" social structures that provide moral guidance and sanction. At root, this has not changed over the past fifty years, though this role has been accentuated as churches have become isolated as remaining intermediate structure. In essence, churches now attempt to fill the social role that whole communities and civic organization once shared with churches and distributed among themselves.
In the past, progressives and liberals have often fought against the strictures of tradition and local control, and for a univeralization of rights and liberties. Why, then, would progressives alter that strategy and focus effort on restoring local community structures and thus "decentralize" moral standards and sanctions?
One possible argument is that progressive liberalism is about promoting good lives for everyone, not simply those with monopolies on force, social status, or economic resources. In the past, this has put progressives on the opposing side of tradition whenever tradition is used to justify denial of civil rights and civic equality, or the maintenance of exploitative economic structures. Federalism and "state’s rights" were (and are) employed as a cover for maintenance of regional traditions of discrimination and exploitation (e.g., Jim Crow). Progressive liberals, who naturally opposed discrimination and exploitation, opposed the means by which these were maintained and justified. For most of the twentieth century, this has placed progressives on the side of centralizing forces such as national legislation, decreased federalism, and the Supreme Court.
I would suggest, however, that the allegience of progressives is to fostering good lives for all citizens, not to specific methods or tactics. Centralizing or universalizing strategies are required in some cases, but not in others. An open question is whether local control, local communities, and intermediate institutions will be better at fostering moral satisfaction in a plural society than national legislation and jurisprudence. The answer, of course, lies in whether efforts to localize moral guidance and sanction in communities can be accomplished without re-enabling illiberal tendencies on the part of local communities.
I believe it is also an open question whether local community structure can be re-established without re-localization of economy. As an example, local communities could agree upon ways to reduce the amount of violence children are exposed to in movies, but how can this be enforced if AMC or Loews are in control of what plays in each theatre? This is not a question that the "free market" can address; instead it is a question of how we balance the overall economic benefits of liberal capitalism with the specific and localized problems that increasing economic scale create.
The preceding example brings us full circle. The current effort by the socially conservative Right to centralize morality in our national political discourse may be a reaction to the failure of "intermediate" social institutions to provide effective moral guidance and sanction in the presence of an economy which places choice out of local control. In response to our inability to create and enforce local standards in the face of national or global economic actors, social conservatives are attempting to use governmental power as a counterweight. Politics becomes the arena for addressing moral concerns because other avenues appear closed.
Unfortunately, politics and law are not well suited to moral guidance and sanction in a diverse, plural society. Reasonable people seem to agree upon some moral basics. Murder, theft, and rape, for example, are bad in nearly everyone’s moral system. People disagree about many other moral issues, however, and thus national legislation and Supreme Court decisions nearly always please some at the expense of angering others.
Thus, a potential strategy for progressives is finding policies which can assist local communities in effectively living their own versions of "the good life," while retaining centralizing legal control over some very basic issues surrounding freedom to participate in the political process, the social safety net, and equality of participation in modern life. Finding and retaining this balance will be harder than simply fighting to gain a majority for purposes of entrenching a universalizing, but progressive, moral agenda.
But striking (or restriking) this balance could have a number of salutary effects beyond simply addressing "moral decline." It would allow our nation to better steer the middle ground between majoritarian control and protection for minority views. Madison envisioned intermediate social structures and groups playing a key role in ensuring liberty in the presence of democracy. Restoring the Madisonian vision of a multi-layered political system would also assist progressives in other key issues, such as limits on Executive power and limiting the effects of great wealth upon our electoral system. Such an approach also allies progressives with the best sort of conservative impulse — that which seeks to defend and, if necessary, restore that which has lasting value in our history and traditions.
More to come in future posts.
(1) The emerging consensus seems to be that religious belief was not the main reason why Kerry lost the 2004 election, but we did lose support from Catholics (especially among Hispanics). Combined with continued support among self-identified "evangelical" Protestants, it’s easy to see how religion can be seen as a major factor in voting patterns today. Interestingly, however, the percentage of voters saying they cared most about "moral values" was down this year to 22%, from 35% in 2000 and 40% in the 1996 election. Nevertheless, morality is an important concern for Democrats given that anywhere from a fifth to more than a third of the country counts it a major issue.
(2) And to frame and understand "moral decline" in terms which don’t automatically blame the "liberal culture" of the 1960’s for our current situation. Conservatives like Robert Bork (e.g., Slouching Towards Gomorrah) have had more success in identifying instances or classes of ethical failure than in explaining their origins and evolution.
(3) An excellent introduction to the evolution of our landscape and social structures given the automobile is James Howard Kunstler’s book Geography of Nowhere: the rise and decline of America’s man-made landscape.
(4) The effect of these changes on rural communities is well documented, though for an essentially liberal yet thoughtfully conservative viewpoint, I’d recommend the essays of Wendell Berry. Berry’s classic The Unsettling of America is superb, but I recommend starting with the essays in What Are People For? (particularly The Work of Local Culture), and Home Economics (particularly Does Community Have a Value?). For the explicit linkage of our current moral outrage with community disintegration, see the title essay in Berry’s Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.