The Nation’s Leading Moral Issues: Empire and Inequality

The closer we get to the general United States presidential election, the more we can expect to hear about “moral issues” and the role they play alongside and/or against “economic” (or “pocketbook), “national security” (foreign policy) and/or identity (race, gender, ethnicity, age, and religious affiliation or lack thereof) issues in determining voters’ decisions.


And what, pray tell, is a “moral issue?”


In the hands of corporate media functionaries and political strategists, it refers mainly to supposed hot-button sex-related matters like gay marriage and abortion.  The “moral issues” category also often includes gun-owner rights, religious belief or the lack thereof (faith versus secularism), and the regular display of sex and violence on American television and movie screens.


American voters, some liberal commentators and strategists complain, are fundamentally divided and often enough diverted from their true economic interests by politicians pushing “moral issues.”  Bad Republicans redirect backlashing working class and rural (“Red State”) whites away from their attachment to the good Democratic Party – the workers’ “natural” political voice in a world uncorrupted by Machiavellian Republican strategists like Karl Rove – by opposing abortion and gay marriage and upholding God and guns. 


White working class whites need to get off “moral issues” and back to their pocketbook interests by lining up with the less fiercely regressive and openly plutocratic of the two dominant U.S. business parties – the Democrats.  


There are four interrelated problems with all of this.   


The first difficulty is that white working class whites appear to be less prone than more affluent Caucasians to privilege “moral issues” over pocketbook concerns when it comes to voting behavior (Bartels 2008) [1].


The second trouble is that National Security, militarism, and racial identity probably do more than “moral issues” to win white working-class votes for the hyper-plutocratic, arch-authoritarian G.O.P.


The third difficulty is that the standard liberal analysis tends to ignore the pivotal role that the ever-more corporate-captive, elitist, and neoliberal Democratic Party has played in taking working class economic issues (and “moral economy”) off the table.  This critical abandonment helps make it less than naturally self-evident to lower- and working-class whites that they have a strong material interest in the Democrats winning elections. As Charles Derber has noted, Republican cultural “pseudopopulism” centered on “moral values” is “a moral attack strategy to which the Democrats have made themselves vulnerable because of their elitism and their embrace of the corporate agenda.” The Democrats, Derber adds, “have set themselves up” for the picking off of working class voters “not by becoming morally extreme but by becoming too closely wedded to the ruling [corporate and imperial] regime and losing their capacity to see the regime itself as the core source of what so many Americans perceive as a crisis in moral values” (Derber 2005, PP. 218, 245).


The fourth problem relates to the question of how we want to conceptualize the term “moral issue.”  The dominant “mainstream” restriction of this expression to “gays, God, guns, and abortion” is idiotic and Orwellian.


For many of us Americans, it a moral issue that the top 1 percent of the U.S. owns nearly 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, enjoying lives of unimagined opulence while more than 37 million Americans live beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.  A morally shocking 43 percent, equaling nearly 16 million of those officially poor Americans, live in what researchers call “deep poverty,” at less than half federal poverty measure (roughly $10,000 a year for a family of four). “Deep poverty” has been on the rise in the U.S. over recent years and decades, encouraged by Bill Clinton and New Gingrich’s vicious and immoral welfare “reform” (elimination.  It is now at its highest rate since 1975 (Agence France-Presse 2007).


This is a grave moral issue in the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society – the U.S.


It is a moral issue that wealthy Americans enjoy the finest health care in history while 45 million Americans have no health insurance. 


It is a moral issue that American corporations and wealth enjoy numerous powerful state protections and subsidies while “U.S. social programs are minimal compared to those of Western Europe and Canada” (Agence France-Presse 2007).


It is a moral issue that working Americans’ wages, salaries, and benefits have stagnated and declined, lagging far behind rising productivity, while corporate profits and other elite “earnings” have skyrocketed over recent years and decades (Agence France-Press, 2007).


It is a moral issue that Americans work the longest hours in the industrialized world, many working multiple jobs just to get by, lacking the time and energy to participate in a meaningful way in their nation’s supposed shining model of “democracy,” well known to be a plutocracy within ruling American circles.


It is a moral issue that the American corporate class routinely out-sources production to places where labor costs are lower and weak governments are bribed to keep wages cheap and social and environmental protections non-existent. 


It is a moral issue that “American” corporations exploit their capacity to produce elsewhere and still sell in America to abandon the 20th century American social contract and to terrorize workers and public officials into economic and social concessions.  The results have included an ongoing epidemic of job loss, union-busting, and capital flight – an “abandonment of America” that has led both to dramatically increased inequality within the U.S. and to a declining competitiveness of the U.S. economy as a whole (Faux 2006).


Interestingly enough, a majority of voters surveyed by Zogby in 2004 thought the United States’ “most urgent moral question” was either “greed and materialism” (33 percent) or “poverty and economic injustice” (31 percent). Just 16 percent identified abortion and 12 percent picked gay marriage as the nation’s “most urgent moral question” (Adams and Derber, 2008). Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the U.S. population thought that injustice and inequality were the nation’s leading “moral issue.”


It is a moral issue that the ever more globalized “American” business class makes no serious effort to reverse the nation’s declining performance and investment in the critical areas of education, research, infrastructure, health, energy efficiency, and the like (Faux 2006).


It is a moral issue that African-Americans are afflicted with a national wealth gap of seven black cents on the white dollar and that numerous persistent and interrelated forms of institutional racism continue to saddle black America with a heavily disproportionate burden of poverty, injury, sickness, incarceration and criminal marking. 


It is a moral issue that the United States’ relatively unregulated, free-wheeling carbon-spewing capitalism is in the vanguard of the industrialized world’s deadly assault on livable ecology – an ongoing attack that promises to permanently alter the climate with consequences terrible to imagine.


It is a moral issue that petroleum and so-called “defense” corporations are making a profit killing (directly in the case of the military contractors and indirectly in the case of Big Oil) from illegal U.S.-colonial wars that have killed more than a million Iraqi and Afghan citizens. 


Those wars of imperial occupation have also killed thousands of U.S. troops, disproportionately recruited from the American working class.  The fortunate sons and daughters of the leading investors and managers in the corporate sector are exempted from the “patriotic” “duty” of “serving” in these colonial attacks – a special privilege reserved mainly for the children of the lower and working classes.  Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin et al.’s top managers can wear all the flag pins they want on their $700 suits; they profit from and do not sacrifice for imperial actions whose terrible costs are spread across American society and fall with special gravity on the working class.


That is a moral issue.


It is a moral issue that the United States’ – the world’s one and only military superpower – spends half of its federal budget on warfare, weaponry and on maintaining a spectacular, historically unprecedented “empire of bases” (Chalmers Johnson’s term) – including more than 720 military installations located in nearly every nation on Earth – while billions of world citizens (including millions in the imperial “homeland”) live in often shocking conditions of material deprivation. 


It is a moral issue that the United States accounts for roughly half the military spending in the world and its imperial military budget far outweighs its social spending while monumental human need goes unmet at home and abroad.


The noted moralist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had an interesting comment on such perverted national priorities. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” King said in 1967, “is approaching spiritual death."


The United States’ assault on Iraq is a “moral issue.” As “Iraq” has been pushed to the margins of the election debates and “mainstream” (dominant corporate) media, the people of that occupied state suffer under what amounts to a U.S.-imposed Holocaust. According to the respected journalist Nir Rosen in the December 2007 edition of the mainstream journal Current History, “Iraq has been killed, never to rise again.  The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century.  Only fools talk of solutions now.  There is no solution.  The only hope is that perhaps the damage can be contained” (Rosen 2007).


A national survey in 2004 made an interesting finding on popular morality in relation to the Iraq War. “When voters surveyed were asked to list the moral issue that most affected their vote,” Noam Chomsky observes, “the Iraq War placed first at 42 percent, while 13 percent named abortion and 9 percent named gay marriage” (Chomsky 2006, p. 228, discussing a survey cited in The Boston Globe, 27 November, 2004).


It is a moral issue that the supposed “antiwar” candidate Barack Obama said the following to General Motors workers in Janesville, Wisconsin on February 13th 2008: “It’s time to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting America back together.”


Yes, we are "putting Iraq back together" with a deadly imperial occupation that has killed perhaps as many as 1.3 million Iraqis so far. This after the U.S. States has blown Iraq apart through two deadly military invasions, one ongoing occupation, and a decade plus of deadly, mass-murderous "economic sanctions.” 


It is a moral issue that the purportedly progressive and even (according to the right-wing attack machine)”left-wing” Obama describes the corporate-neoliberal Clinton administration as having been “recognizably progressive” and that Obama praises the Gingrich-Clinton welfare “reform” as the “right” thing to do.


It is a moral issue that all of the surviving presidential candidates are too power-mad and too beholden to dominant corporate and imperial interests, market ideology, American Exceptionalist national mythology, and white racism-denial to substantively engage these moral issues on the eve of the next great quadrennial corporate-crafted election spectacle.


It is a moral issue that most of the moral issues I have just reviewed go essentially unnoticed by the United States’ God-like corporate media, which prefers to keep the populace focused on trivial matters related to candidates’ personal “qualities” and “character” and to segregate voters’ “moral issues” into the ghettos of gay marriage, abortion, and gun ownership.


For what it’s worth, that media parades the sex and violence that helps push some Americans into the clutches of the ironically pro-corporate evangelical right for a very simple reason: it sells. It’s about capitalism, itself served by the right-wing backlash.  




Veteran radical historian Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).  Street’s next book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (forthcoming in summer of 2008). 




1. In recent presidential elections,” Larry Bartels notes, “affluent voters, who tend to be liberal on cultural matters, are about twice as likely as middle-class and poor voters to make their decisions on the basis of their cultural concerns.” In other words, working class white voters don’t especially privilege “cultural issues” (God, guns, gays, and abortion) over pocketbook concerns and actually do that less than wealthier voters (Bartels 2008).






Kate Adams and Charles Derber 2008. The New Feminized Majority (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).


Agence France-Press 2007.  “Report: In U.S., Record Numbers Are Plunged Into Poverty,” (February 25, 2007), read at http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-02-25-us-poverty_x.htm


Larry Bartels 2008. “Inequalities,” New York Times Magazine (April 27, 2008), p. 22. 


Noam Chomsky 2006. Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006).


Charles Derber 2005. Hidden Power: What you Need to Know to Save Our Democracy (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005), pp. 245, 218.


Jeff Faux, The Global Class War: How America’s Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future and What It Will Take to Win it Back (New York: Wiley, 2006).


Nir Rosen (2007). “The Death of Iraq,” Current History (December 2007), p. 31. 


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