The Democrats’ defeat in the Nov. 2 national election comes as yet another temporary setback to progressive politics in this country. However, while there is much to be concerned about (from election fraud to the Supreme Court to the war in Iraq), we must all recognize that now is not the time to fall into an indulgent stupor of defeatism, but rather to energize ourselves once again. Life isn’t easy, and neither is politics.
Bush is inheriting his own messes, both in Iraq and with the ballooning national deficit. This house of cards will fall, and even the Republicans aren’t clever enough to blame anybody else when that happens. In the meantime, it is crucial that every progressive citizen of this country contribute our intellects and energies in the development of a coherent opposition message. We need to be ready to supplant the current flawed model of fear, greed, nationalism, selfishness, short-sightedness, and bigotry when its corrupted foundation gives way.
The thing that really struck me as I was listening to analysis on election night was that people in the exit polls listed “moral values” as their top priority more often than any other category (such as the economy, terrorism, or Iraq). And when I heard it I knew that this was bad for Kerry. Because the Republicans have somehow made Americans associate them with “moral values.” Which is quite a trick, given the irresponsible, dishonest, and mean character of the party’s leadership.
How has the Democratic Party allowed the Radical Right to take command of the language of morality in the political sphere? Kerry plainly looked uncomfortable when the “morality” questions came up. He seemed so concerned about not offending anyone that he could not make his own vigorous moral argument. Well, we’re not going to win that way.
The Democrats are going to have to find the courage of their own moral convictions again. It is time for the Democratic Party, and for all of us who consider ourselves to be “liberals,” “progressives,” “Democrats,” or even “Greens” (a party I am still proud to be affiliated with) to employ our intellect in this struggle. To learn how to articulate those beliefs that we hold in our hearts. To begin aggressively re-framing and re-defining the public morality of America.
Beliefs in social and economic justice are moral values. Beliefs in equality and inclusion and compassion are moral values. Beliefs in honesty and integrity are moral values. A belief that each generation has a responsibility to leave a better world (environmentally, fiscally, educationally, socially) for their descendents is a moral value—in my view, it is the transcendant one.
The Democrats are not going to be able to shift the debate without taking some risks, and perhaps without alienating some people. But I think we can afford to alienate a few bigots and jerks in our efforts to convince the majority of Americans that we are right.
We all know that gay marriage is not “polling” very well right now. Who cares?? Martin Luther King, Jr. did not wait for people to stop being bigots. He did not wait for the polls to become favorable. He said that discrimination is wrong. He said this nation was founded upon an ideal of equality, and it is time for the nation to live up to that ideal. And by providing leadership, he helped move the nation forward. We are desperately in need of this type of leadership. So let each of us provide it in whatever tiny way that we can.
The Democratic Party is going to have to stop being afraid of the moral questions. It is going to have to find the courage of its own convictions. And it is going to have to make the argument, on behalf of all of us, that secular morality is not inferior to the religious variation. That it is possible for people to access their own intelligence, intuition, history, empathy, and instincts to produce a moral order and vision. That the Enlightenment is alive and well, and that “morality” is not synonymous with the abandonment of rationality, logic, fact, evidence, and science—but rather, that these modern tools can be employed in the search for a more perfect moral order.
As citizens, I think it is important that all of us participate in this imaginative work.
Pierre Vladimir Stroud lives and works in San Francisco. He is a project coordinator at the Volunteer Legal Services Program, as well as a writer and performer.