DEMOCRATS ARE complaining bitterly that about 80 percent of Americans who cited “moral values” as their most important issue in exit polls voted for President Bush.
How can anyone concerned about moral values, they wonder, endorse a leader who misled this country into war, arranged for billionaires to pay less in taxes and gave the United States and hopes for democracy a bad name around the globe?
How can anyone concerned about moral values vote for a man whose first term saw such dramatic increases in poverty and inequality?
Good questions all.
But this easy amazement obscures a deeper problem: If the Democratic Party platform and candidate for president embodied moral values more faithfully than the Republicans, why didn’t a large percentage of people voting Democratic cite moral values as their highest concern?
Democrats believe that their program of universal health care, good jobs and international cooperation for peace reflects the highest moral standards – yet they don’t talk about policy in these terms. Democrats appeal to interests, but, having lost the language of values, they have allowed Republicans to hijack the moral conversation.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty all presented agendas of economic populism in terms of explicit moral calls to end poverty, extend worker rights and shape market outcomes to serve economic justice.
One of the great moral leaders, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., led his movement to demand economic justice as well as civil rights. He died in Memphis lending his support to a strike of garbage collectors. Yet we rarely hear Democratic leaders today talking passionately about economic justice, perhaps fearing such language will be dismissed and ridiculed as “class struggle.”
But class struggle exists, and the working class is losing. Over the past 30 years, as the Republican agenda of unrestricted corporate power has come increasingly to dominate this country, workers’ living standards have declined in well-documented ways – lower pay, longer hours, less health care, ruined pensions, more insecurity. At the same time, and toward the same end, Republicans have banished all questions of economic justice from public conversation. They insist that economic outcomes are best left to the market – that the market is the best arbiter of winners and losers.
When issues of economic justice disappear from moral consideration, what’s left of “values” is personal behavior alone. The religious right has played its role in the class wars of the last 30 years by giving the corporate agenda what passes for moral cover while reinforcing its extreme individualism. The values debate, defined by the right, has aided the rise of corporate power and the decline of labor’s strength.
Reviving workers’ living standards requires direct challenges to out-of-control corporate greed and unrestricted market power. To be effective, these challenges must involve a resurrection of the language of economic justice and mutual responsibility for our human community and natural environment. All progressive policy reforms and limits to corporate power flow from these essential values.
Democrats make a mistake to couch their programs solely in terms of the immediate interests of voters without placing those interests in their moral context. People rightly wish to advocate moral values and can be willing to sacrifice some material comfort for them. Polls have repeatedly shown that most Americans say they are willing to pay somewhat higher taxes if they can be sure the money will be put to social good. When Democrats speak only of “interests,” they play into the corporate ethos of stark individualism, reinforce the agenda of the right and cede the moral high ground to the Republican agenda.
To revive the prospects for working people, who make up the great majority of this country, we need to address interests and ethics together. We must challenge the claim that the scope of moral judgment is personal behavior alone and hold the corporate elite and Republican and Democratic parties to standards of social responsibility and economic justice.
Michael Zweig teaches economics and directs the Center for Study of Working Class Life at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. His most recent book is What’s Class Got to Do With It?