Friday, March 16, 2012

Change Starts with a Moral Movement

To conservatives, the Obama administration has been a smash-and-grab conquest of the American heartland.  The question that conservatives ask, after ObamaCare, Keynesian stimulus, Solyndra, czars in the White House, is whether ten thousand swords will indeed leap from their scabbards in November, or whether "the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory" of America is extinguished forever.

But for liberals the Obama administration is nothing of the sort.  For liberals ObamaCare is the culmination of a great and generous moral vision, that everyone would have access to health care, so that nobody would ever lack health care because of cost.  Green energy is a moral quest to save the planet from ruin in the wasteful burning of non-renewable fossil fuels.  It is well to remember that it is the ends of the liberal moral system that justifies the means of liberal politics.

To conservatives the whole story of Obamism is its trespass on the Constitution and its fallacious belief in the idea of government as a moral force.  Big government programs lead to big dependency and big time unintended consequences.  As liberals used to say, you cannot legislate morality, even environmental ethics and social justice.

Of course this is rubbish.  Legislation is always the legislation of morality, the enforcement of some vision of the good.

But liberals have an important point: just not the one they think they are making.  Liberals may strongly resist when conservatives try to legislate their morality, but they cheer on loudly their own liberal leaders when they try to legislate liberal morality.  They are in fact all in favor of legislating morality: their morality, or ethics, as they prefer to call it.  What is the movement for "gay marriage" after all but an attempt to legislate liberal ideas of the moral life--the idea that marriage is a partnership of love between two people, any two people--over the conservative idea of the moral life--the idea that marriage is a social institution to protect women and bind men to the support of their children.

No, the point about legislating morality is that legislating morality comes second, after you have established your morality in the first place.  You want to ban slavery?  First you must mount a moral crusade to make it into a scandal in the hearts of men and women.  You want civil rights for African Americans?  First you must mount a moral movement to make segregation into a revolting practice about as evil as the Peculiar Institution itself.

If conservatives want to roll back the welfare state and replace it with the opportunity state or the mutual-aid state or the charitable state or a combination of the three then conservatives must make the current welfare state into a scandal "not to be endured."  Conservatives must mount a moral movement to change the hearts and minds of the American people.

That is the argument of William G. McLoughlin in Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform.  He writes that
great awakenings are periods when the cultural system has had to be revitalized in order to overcome jarring disjunctions between norms and experience, old beliefs and new realities, dying patterns and emerging pattern of behavior.
In other words, politics begins with religion.  And that goes for secular religions as well.  You cannot understand the modern era without experiencing socialism and Communism as great secular religious Awakenings that moved men's minds long before they made revolutions and passed social legislation.

Loughlin's particular interest is the great religious awakenings in American history, beginning with the Puritan awakening in 1600.  Our current liberal culture and governance, he asserts, dates back to a great awakening that took place at the end of the 19th century and gave us the Social Gospel and the welfare state.

To conservatives the welfare state is a horrible disjunction between a supposed noble vision and its corrupt experience, between the visions of the anointed and the grubby failures of crony capitalism and "unintended consequences."  The clumsy programs of welfare and ObamaCare only make things worse.  To liberals, the welfare state has liberated the exploited and the traditionally marginalized from a life of subjection and want.  Whatever the minor faults of individual programs, we should never forget what the United States would look like without them.  It would be a mean and brutal place where the rich got richer and the poor went to the wall.

It is almost certain that liberals overreached in 2009 and 2010.  Americans don't want an America where liberals boss them around with an endless procession of 1,000 page bills.  But Americans do believe in Social Security and Medicare, as pollster Scott Rasmussen makes clear.
The two biggest entitlement programs -- Social Security and Medicare -- are seen by voters as trust funds they pay into during their working lives and then get back in their retirement years.
Want to reform Social Security and Medicare?  First you have to change the notion voters have that there is a "trust fund" out there with their money in it.  And clearing up that little misunderstanding will be nothing compared to the effort it will take to undermine and destroy the moral standing those two programs have in the hearts and minds of Americans.

In other words, if you want to change society, don't think about politics.  Not yet.  Think about a moral movement to make the current arrangements into a scandal and a moral outrage.  And then do something about it.

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