Why Americans Hate Democrats—A Dialogue

Gotta have faith.

Editor’s note: The day after the election, Slate’s political writers tackled the question of why the Democratic Party—which has now lost five of the past seven presidential elections and solidified its minority status in Congress—keeps losing elections. Chris Suellentrop says that John Kerry was too nuanced and technocratic, while George W. Bush offered a vision of expanding freedom around the world. William Saletan argues that Democratic candidates won’t win until they again cast their policies the way Bill Clinton did, in terms of values and moral responsibility. Timothy Noah contends that none of the familiar advice to the party—move right, move left, or sit tight—seems likely to help. Slate asked a number of wise liberals to take up the question of why Americans won’t vote for the Democrats. Click here to read the other entries.

Robert Wright is partly right. Yes, Kerry should have spoken—and future Democrats must speak—in moral terms. But not about Janet Jackson’s bare breast, or about gays, guns, abortion, or school prayer, or even about the “evil” of Saddam Hussein and terrorists. The Democrats’ moral language should be about social justice.

Let’s be clear: Bush ran on a moral agenda—God, guns, gays, and true grit in fighting the evils of Saddam Hussein and terrorism. Kerry ran on a policy agenda—affordable health care, deficit reduction, and combating terrorism through stronger international alliances and a smarter strategy. Bush spoke about right and wrong in moral terms—as matters of righteousness and faith. Kerry spoke of right and wrong in pragmatic terms—for example, saying he had the right way to get the economy moving again or to fight al-Qaida, and George Bush was going the wrong way.

I don’t think most Americans rejected John Kerry’s policies. They just didn’t pay much attention to them. It was Bush’s moral vision they found more compelling. Kerry kept saying he had a “plan” for the economy and a “plan” for health care and a “plan” for fighting terrorists. The problem is, when politicians talk about having a plan for this or a policy for that, people just don’t believe it. One of the legacies of the last 40 years of mounting distrust in government is that politicians with “plans” and “policies” are immediately discounted. Plans and policies sound like meaningless blather. But when political leaders speak with righteous indignation—with passion and conviction about what is morally right to do or morally offensive—they can inspire. Kerry was correct on policy, but his policies didn’t inspire. Bush was wrong on policy, but he had a moral vision and he exuded righteous indignation. He did inspire.

My recommendation to Democrats is not to become more religious. Religion is a personal matter. Nor should Dems move toward Republican positions on matters of personal morality, such as gay marriage or abortion. (One caveat: I do think Democrats should be clear that they want fewer abortions in America—not by prohibiting them, but by making sure young people have access to contraceptives and family-planning counseling, and other social services.) My recommendation is that Democrats offer somewhat fewer plans and policies and have more moral conviction.

Democrats used to talk in moral terms—about fighting for civil rights, for example. What should Democrats say now and in the future about public morality? That it’s morally wrong to give huge tax cuts to the rich while cutting social programs for the poor and working class—especially when the gap between the rich and everyone else is wider than it’s been in more than a century. That we have a moral obligation to give every American child a good education and decent health care. That it’s morally wrong that millions of Americans who work full time don’t earn enough to keep their families out of poverty. That corporate executives who steal money from their investors and employees are morally reprehensible. And that it’s morally wrong to kill over a hundred thousand Iraqis and send over a thousand young Americans to their deaths for a cause that is still undefined, in a war that was unnecessary.

I’m not saying Democrats have to adopt my particular moral positions. But unless or until Democrats return to larger questions of public morality, they won’t inspire the American public. Plans and policies are important, of course. But there’s no substitute for offering a vision of what we can become as a nation—and giving citizens the faith we can get there.

Which gets me to the issue of faith. Democrats need to talk more about it, and inspire more of it. But here again, I don’t mean the Republican or right-wing evangelical version—faith in a particular religion or god, faith in final judgment. I mean the sort of faith on which all social progress has been based, and must be based—an irrational faith that it is possible, by working together, to create a more just nation and a more just world. This sort of faith is entirely irrational—it defies reason—in the sense that it’s often impossible to find hard evidence to justify it. It requires a great leap into the unknown and unknowable. It necessitates boundless energy and absurd optimism even in the darkest times. But without such faith, progress toward a just society is not possible.

Right-wingers would like nothing better than for us to lose this faith and just go home and be quiet. Then they win forever. Instead, Democrats must generate it, over and over and over again.