Friday, May 21, 2004

Conservative and Liberal Morality

A few days ago, I came across an excellent article written by Michael Tomasky, the executive editor of The American Prospect. I assumed that the big political blogs would pick this article up, but to date that has not been the case. It's just too good to get lost in the flood of information we are bombarded with daily, so I'm going to link it.

More than that, I'm going to offer it here in its entirety. I've got this new feature, the sitemeter thingy, which has informed me that the majority of my visitors click right through. For the benefit of those casual readers, who may not use the link, I'm reproducing the whole thing, in the hope that maybe it will catch the eye of someone just passing through:

End Times
The Bushies may be accomplishing what liberals never could -- bringing the era of conservative morality to a close.
By Michael Tomasky
Web Exclusive: 05.17.04

We aren't witnessing just the disastrous meltdown of Bush administration policy in Iraq. Nor are we witnessing merely the potential end of the line for one cabinet official, although it does seem possible that, in the wake of Sy Hersh's devastating New Yorker takeout this week, George W. Bush will downgrade his assessment of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from "superb" to "expendable" (with the president now within the margin of error of approval ratings in the high 30s, he desperately needs to roll a head that will make a statement).

Those developments, important as they are, don't really show us the big picture. The meta-story here is that we are watching the total collapse of conservative morality.

Liberals and conservatives, as George Lakoff and others have observed, operate according to distinct moral systems. Lakoff's research has tended to emphasize the moral universes of individual liberals and conservatives; liberals believe in questioning authority, conservatives believe in respecting authority, that sort of thing.

But the differences in the two moral systems also play out on the social or civic plane, and not just on the individual level. And in that civic sphere, the differences come down to this: Liberals believe in public morality and in adherence to democratic process, while conservatives value personal morality and positive, efficiently achieved results. What has happened at Abu Ghraib specifically and in Iraq generally are, in fact, direct expressions of conservative morality unchecked.

And it's clearer every week that conservative morality is a contradiction in terms, and that the American people are coming around to that view. I think this theory explains, well, basically everything. For example: How many conversations have you had with a fellow liberal, discussing the latest administration effrontery, that concluded with one of you asking the other some version of, "How can it possibly be that this isn't considered a scandal?!"

Indeed, liberals have watched this administration in a state of perpetual disbelief about the number of stories that should have blown up into scandals but never did. From Harken Energy to Thomas White and Enron to the Tom Scully-Richard Foster-Medicare story to the more general rancid politicization of every agency of government, the potential scandals have been nonstop. And liberals, who care about public integrity and process, can't comprehend that these things haven't become full-fledged scandals.

There are particular reasons they haven't -- no smoking gun was found on Harken, for instance. But the big historical reason they haven't is that we live in an age in which conservative morality is dominant. Public morality and adherence to democratic process just aren't as important.

In the 1960s and ’70s, when we lived in an era of liberal morality, those two qualities were more important, and the kinds of scandals we had then? Watergate, most obviously, but smaller-fry dustups like the Bert Lance affair reflected the privileged position of those concerns. Liberals didn't care so much about personal morality, and while they cared about positive results, they were less likely to bend rules to achieve them. (It's worth remembering, too, that as far as public service in this country was concerned, liberals wrote most of the rules.)

But beginning in the 1980s, conservatives successfully discredited liberal morality and substituted their own. Now, personal morality was pre-eminent -- Ronald Reagan as the stand-up man's man, contrasted with Bill Clinton, or at least with the image of Clinton that the right successfully peddled, as a licentious and corner-cutting and self-indulgent baby boomer. That Clinton was nearly brought down in the web of a personal-morality scandal was a reflection not only of his own weaknesses of the flesh but also of the fact that this was the sort of thing conservatives cared most about and sought most fiercely to expose. To them, Clinton’s personal failings disqualified him from capable public service, and they got the mainstream media to agree with them (though, fortunately, not the majority of the country).

The packaging of George W. Bush in 1999 and 2000 was nothing less than a conservative morality play. He was a "good man"; he'd gotten himself off the sauce and found Jesus; he didn't, as far as anyone knew, play around on his wife. Meanwhile, as governor of Texas, he'd squelched an investigation into a funeral-home chain run by a friend; he'd stacked the board of the University of Texas Investment Management Company, a huge deal that no major national media ever took a close, sustained look at; he kept starting failing businesses, losing money, and somehow getting richer and richer. But none of these issues, all having directly to do with public morality, mattered. He was a good, strong man who "got results" for Texas and would do the same for America.

Bush used such language often early in his administration to describe his appointees: They were good people, and the rest of us should trust them. His famous remark that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin "looked into each other's souls" provided another case in point: The policies Putin was pursuing -- his public morality, from undemocratic (the Russia media) to disastrous (Chechnya) -- weren't important. What was important was that Putin, too, was a good, strong man who has certainly, after a fashion, gotten "results."

What's this got to do with Iraq? Everything. Rumsfeld was another one who was sold to us as a good, strong man. He reveled in the image, and the press, especially after September 11, went right along ("You're America's stud!" Tim Russert once gushed to him). Paul Wolfowitz, the neocons in general -- strong men who knew exactly what the United States needed to do in the world and who didn't have time for all this sissified diplo-speak with the United Nations and the French, all fit into this process. They would eliminate al-Qaeda. They'd corral Saddam Hussein and bring democracy to Iraq. And they'd do it all as a function of their personal morality, their intense will. If they bent a few rules, well, they were on the side of good versus evil, and they were making one of history's grandest omelettes. Eggs would be broken. That's the way it is.

Read Hersh's piece in this context. Adherence to process was treated with contempt, never regarded as anything other than a roadblock to be circumvented.

"Since 9-11, we've changed the rules on how we deal with terrorism," a Pentagon consultant told Hersh, "and created conditions where the ends justify the means."

And now, at Abu Ghraib, that "end" stands revealed as America's greatest disgrace before the rest of the world in decades -- to say nothing of the fact that al-Qaeda has been far more, not far less, active since 9-11, and that Iraq in general is in tatters. Their personal morality, to the extent they possessed it in the first place, is irrelevant. The results are calamitous.

I'm not prepared to say that the American people are going to wake up tomorrow and say collectively, "Golly, we need to go back to an era of liberal morality." Liberal morality had its shortcomings, too, and liberal and Democratic politicians have to learn how to be comfortable again talking about issues in moral terms.

But it is clear that conservative moral arguments -- chiefly about Iraq, but on other fronts as well -- are losing their hold on people. It's a shame it took this much mayhem, and a set of photographs, for this to happen. But it is happening, and it couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of people.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect’s executive editor.

Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Michael Tomasky, "End Times", The American Prospect Online, May 17, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to
The Seymour Hersh article referred to above can be found here. It is also a must read.

Tomasky offers us a particularly concise filter that will be helpful in sorting out the benefits and the flaws of various proclamations and civic actions:

"Liberals believe in public morality and in adherence to democratic process, while conservatives value personal morality and positive, efficiently achieved results."

This filter works when trying to understand Church politics as well. The pendelum has swung. It is time for liberals to stop playing defense.


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