This is a time of intense soul-searching on the left. How did we come out on the wrong side of the values debate? The pundits and other practitioners of conventional wisdom have equated voters’ concern with “moral values” with a repudiation of gay marriage and abortion rights. On the left, this conviction runs even stronger: It must have been those specific issues that swayed the electorate, because on so many core matters of economic and social equality, surely Americans know that it is the left (and the Democratic Party) that is on their side.
No, they don’t. As Garret Keizer argues in this issue’s cover story, the right has learned to exploit “with unerring tact” the sense of quiet desperation that besets so many families, the economic and moral slippage that they fear as much or more than Osama bin Laden. Parents whose incomes can’t keep pace with basic needs, who fear losing their children to video games and worse, have gravitated toward Bush’s promise of strength and stability—though in fact, as Keizer points out, “the widening inequality fostered by the social policies of the right effects the very same ‘erosion of moral values’ from which the right promises to defend us.”
But conservatives are not the only hypocrites: Privileged liberals also cherish their privileges and have traded a historic commitment to economic parity for the same illusion that the right labors under—that “you can be a good person and want a good society without either kind of goodness costing you a dime.” Yes, Bush’s tax cuts are unjust, but it’s not only Republicans who indulge in, say, luxury kitchen remodels costing an average of $57,000—or $10,000 more than what it takes to build an entire Habitat for Humanity home (see page 26).
Unless the left recovers its own moral values, it cedes the terrain of morality without a fight. And that would be a shame, for it is precisely this terrain where an administration that casually disregards fundamental ethical tenets should be engaged. You want to talk about morality (or, for that matter, “liberty,” or “freedom”)? Let’s talk about imprisoning people indefinitely despite evidence of their innocence, about bureaucratic justifications for torture, or about the fact that—as Emily Bazelon reveals in this issue—officials in Washington had evidence of torture at U.S. detention camps in Afghanistan for more than a year before the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted. Let’s call the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, or the fact that 9 million children now go without health insurance, what it really is: not a “mistake,” not “bad policy,” but wrong.
Most of all, let’s start thinking about what it takes to live by our principles—principles that once rested on a belief in true equality for all humankind. Short of that, as Keizer writes, “we will have done nothing more than to demonstrate that our theocratic adversaries on the right are right: namely that the secularist tradition of democratic liberalism lacks a moral core.”