So, how about that election, huh? I'm so glad it's over and I promised myself I'd move on to other things but this was a Big One-- maybe the most consequential election since Prop 13 passed in California in 1978-- and I didn't want to let the moment slip by.
To see why I think this election was such a Big Honking Deal we have to take a quick detour into the past. Alas, I'm not a Time Lord and we don't have access to a TARDIS so we're going to have to make-do with what we have and what we have is this great Annenberg/CBP series called Ethics In America.
Filmed in 1988, the series brings together an ideologically diverse group of prominent public figures-- politicians, reporters, doctors, judges, military brass, lawyers, clergy, etc.-- to probe deeper ethical questions on subjects ranging from human medical testing and criminal justice to the laws of war and community responsibility. It's meant to teach about the process of ethical reasoning and takes the form of a Socratic dialog where a moderator delivers a simple hypothetical question then complicates it with further questions to illuminate the boundaries of the panelists' moral positions.
It's a great series and I could babble for days about the questions that the series explores (many of which we're still struggling with today) but that's not why I bring it up. I mention it because, in demonstrating the mechanics of moral reasoning with many of the public thinkers of 1988, the series gives us a perfect time capsule of American social norms a time when our society's default assumptions were very different (and in many ways more Liberal) than they are today. Don't think times have changed? Watch episode one and observe Antonin Scalia speak passionately and at length about the individual's public responsibility to care for the young (!!!). It's not a TARDIS but it's the best time machine we have available, so, "Allons y!"
We join the discussion later in that first episode. The moderator, Charles Ogletree, is probing the boundaries of the panelists' ideas about community responsibility by asking if they would give a homeless man a dollar. When Dr. Willard Gaylin of the Hasting Center says that he wouldn't, the moderator asks him why, Gaylin responds:
I guess its the last vestige of my Marxist prepubescence, in which we were taught not to give to private charities because it tended to encourage societal ignoring of problems.Expanding a bit, Dr. Gaylin's reasoning goes something like this: it's the state's responsibility to care for its citizens and private charity only masks the symptoms of a broader, systemic problem that needs fixing. Giving the guy a buck might help the giver feel generous but it's like putting a Band-Aid on severed limb. It does nothing to address the real problem and in fact it makes things worse by casting the government's burden onto private citizens and diverting attention and money away from the programs that can more fairly and effectively distribute the necessary resources.
It doesn't mean that if i found someone shivering in the street, lying without a blanket, i might not do more. You're talking about the street person who asks for a dollar. I don't know what is served except a cheap service to my conscience.
If the idea that the government bears such an absolute responsibility to intervene in the fortunes of individual citizens seems crazy-radical now, remember that Welfare still existed in 1988 when Dr. Gaylin was speaking and that 20 years earlier Dr King's Poor People's Campaign prescribed a guaranteed annual income and demanded a commitment to full employment for all able citizens. 30 years before that, the Federal government created millions of jobs through the Works Progress Administration, Federal Art Project, and Civilian Conservation Corps to help people weather the Great Depression. From within the set of social norms that so deeply accepted that it was the government's duty to help, the idea that private charity should be avoided is perfectly logical.
It's also perfectly monstrous in practice.
Monstrous because it privileges principles and process above people. It requires people to deny aid to the real-life, flesh-and-blood human being standing right in front of them based on some abstract notion about how society should work. The underlying idea-- that it's government's job to administer mutual aid-- may be valid and even praiseworthy, but by choosing logical fidelity to an ideal over the visible needs of living people Dr. Gaylin loses his way.
To their credit, several of the other panelists (including my teenage years' biggest crush and Fake TV Girlfriend™, Linda Ellerbee) push back against Dr. Gaylin's ideas and when he senses he's losing the argument he gets visibly grouchy and all but accuses his opponents of being self-congratulatory bourgeois squishes who just just. don't. get it.
Returning to 2012, take a gander across the conservative media following Barack Obama's re-election on Tuesday. Not the obvious lunatics, but the army of gobsmacked and disillusioned molar-grinders who just don't understand how so many Americans could be so very wrong about America.
"It makes me wonder who my fellow citizens are," said Marianne Doherty of Boston. "I've got to be honest, I feel like I've lost touch with what the identity of America is right now. I really do."Her faith in Mitt Romney's election chances notwithstanding, Marianne seems like a pretty smart cookie. Though, I'd argue it's not America's identity she's lost touch with but our social norms-- that mostly-invisible moral framework that informs how we think about our interactions with one another, including our public institutions.
I don't want to put words in her mouth but as a top Romney supporter it's pretty safe to assume that Marianne subscribes to the set of social norms that were already on the rise when Dr Gaylin was speaking in 1988 and which have formed the default assumptions of American society since the mid-90s. According to those norms, the free market is the source of all good things and government is always the problem. A person's wealth (or lack of it) is a dead-cert indicator of their intelligence, industriousness, and character. If someone is wealthy, they built that. If someone is poor or struggling, it is evidence of laziness, moral decay or market failure and any attempt by the government to intervene is just papering over the real problem. In fact, it's making things worse because it is both a tyrannical imposition upon that person's autonomy and provides a perverse incentive to keep them stuck in the moral tarpit.
This, too, is completely monstrous in practice and for the same reasons that Dr. Gaylin's doctrinaire Marxist view of private charity was: It places ideas over people. It demands we turn away from the real-life suffering of actual humans in the name of an abstract ideal about how things ought to work. The underlying ideas may or may not have some validity (not much, IMO) but by choosing consistency with those ideas over the visible needs of living people we once again wind up in crazytown.
Conservative talkers, politicians and writers gassing on about "rebranding" and doing a better job at reaching out to Hispanics or women or some other demographic group are entirely missing the point. To the majority of Americans, conservatives' "we're cutting off your food stamps because freedom" sounds every bit as inhuman and divorced from reality today as an aging 60s radical's "I'm not going to give a homeless guy a dollar because poverty" did in 1988. Both cases illustrate how manifestly wrongheaded ideas find a place in the mainstream based on their logical consonance with the social norms of the time; and how, once those norms change, their wrongheadedness becomes so apparent that people wonder how anyone was able to believe them in first place.
Social norms are shifting again. Finally. Thankfully.
I'm wary of overgeneralizing based on the the results of one election so it's worth remembering that every Liberal ballot initiative that passed, every progressive candidate who was elected, represents years of patient organizing and outreach. What happened last Tuesday was neither a beginning nor and end but rather a snapshot in time of our shifting ethical landscape. And that landscape is unequivocally shifting in a more Liberal direction.
Conservatism isn't going away. But conservatives need to internalize the fact that society at large no longer accepts the assumptions of Gingrich-style "movement conservatism" as the default and that many of the arguments and policies that have grown out from those assumptions over the last 20-odd years now sound to the majority of Americans like virulent madness.
Liberalism is ascendant. But it's a new kind of liberalism that is still being formed and we must treat society's acceptance of more liberal norms as a sacred trust we must earn every day by putting the practical well-being of real people ahead of abstract shoulds. Many have labored for years, even decades, to regain the nation's trust and we have it now. But that trust is always fragile and always provisional. Let's get to work.