Morality and Utter Cynicism

Just about right on cue, Al From, the founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, an important ally of candidate Bill Clinton in 1992, turned up in the pages of The New York Times on Wednesday lamenting the loss of the “values vote” by the Democrats this year.

“You can’t have everybody who goes to church vote Republican,” he is quoted as saying, “you just can’t.”

It’s hard to argue with that kind of truism, but the key question is what kind of advisers the Democrats will consult to rectify their supposed religious/morality deficit.

The Times’ article suggests at least one source who appears eager to offer advice—the sort of counsel the Democrats would be wise to sidestep. Father Richard John Neuhaus is described as the conservative Catholic editor of the journal First Things who advises George W. Bush on “how to handle the issue of abortion.” Neuhaus was willing to offer the following suggestions to another potential client across the aisle from the president, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: “She could come out against partial-birth abortion, she could come out for parental notification. She could begin to represent herself as moderately pro-choice, maybe even with some linguistic sleight of hand, moderately pro-life.”

With all due respect to Neuhaus, if Catholic priests are willing to go down this ethical road, who the blazes needs Karl Rove or Dick Morris?

The chutzpah on the right over the issue of moral values is breathtaking. When Rove counseled Bush last year on the divisive saliency of gay marriage, it was surely done in the cold calculus of realpolitik. No strategist who executes the kind of character assassination carried out against John Kerry over his Vietnam service, or against John McCain, on a variety of issues in 2000, could be unmindful that he has made a deal of sorts with the devil.

Now in the wake of the election and the much-ballyhooed exit poll finding about “moral values,” leaders on the right are acting like they believe their own spin. The silliest example came in Tuesday’s Times, when David Brooks, the resident conservative on that newspaper’s op-ed page, who has been consistently deaf to any moral qualms about the duplicity or cost in lives of U.S. policy in Iraq, preferring instead to inveigh against anti-Bush “hate” on the left, chose to warn us against the risks of “moral suicide.” Tom Wolfe’s latest novel, “I am Charlotte Simmons,” it seems, provides a stark, even bleak view of the moral relativism and existential emptiness that faces good religious young people when they arrive on college campuses run by secular humanists.

Presumably, our young people do not face the same moral peril if they instead volunteer to challenge black voters at the polls in Cleveland.

Democrats have not been proven immoral by the Republican Party, they have shown themselves to be ineffective in articulating the ethical concerns that animate their own consciousness, concerns that might resonate with a surprising number of voters. When Sen. Clinton, during her husband’s first term in the White House, was promoting her book “It Takes A Village,” she often talked about the “politics of meaning,” a concept pioneered by progressive Jewish thinker Michael Lerner, who founded the magazine Tikkun. In raising Lerner’s ideas, the former first lady was roundly ridiculed for her embrace of fuzzy, vaguely collectivist ethics, nowhere more than in The New York Times magazine, apparently unwilling to be cast as soft on the war of ideas.

Most right-wing thinkers in America today are interested in moral values only to the extent that they do not infringe on the interests of the market place or of American military hegemony. The plight of those without a job pales in comparison to the principle that multinational corporations must be afforded absolute freedom to move capital globally. Critics who raise concerns about human rights abuses such as those at Abu Ghraib and at Gitmo are libeled as unpatriotic and indifferent to the welfare of our own troops. Anti-abortion activists talk about the value of human life, but are immune to the injustice that poor women do not have the same choices as their wealthier peers or the reality that scarcely 30 years ago women died at the hands of back alley practitioners. Environmentalists who value preservation over profit are dismissed as tree huggers.

Democrats will not win by chasing after the compromised values of their Republican opponents. And the queer community will find no home in a party that is unwilling to champion values of inclusiveness without embarrassment.

Karl Rove may have manipulated the moral debate in America this year, but that doesn’t give him anything approaching the moral high ground.

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