In many parts of the world disagreements between groups are often settled through violence and mayhem. The singular achievement of liberal democracies is that we settle our differences through the political process and rarely resort to violence; this is no small feat.
But make no mistake: our current political battles represent life and death struggles. They include a woman’s right to choose, civil rights for gays, universal health care, global warming, and war policy. In short, choosing a president of the United States is one of the most consequential acts a citizen ever performs.
Every time we vote, we make serious moral judgments; there is no escaping this, since politics is little more than the act of converting public morals into public policy. Everything from tax rates to teacher pay to toxic chemical standards to social security payments is at its root a moral decision about what is right and wrong for society.
It should be clear that we cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the last eight years, which have harmed so many millions both here and abroad.
Unfortunately, repeating these mistakes is what John McCain promises to do on virtually every issue. He has not only embraced the Bush economic policy, but his tax proposals are even more regressive and would result in more debt ($5.7 trillion); he has called for the overturning of Roe v. Wade and promised to appoint justices like Alito and Scalia (who not only would take away women’s reproductive rights, but whose views on the scope of executive power are truly frightening); he strongly supports the Iraq War and argues for an open-ended U.S. military occupation; he voted against the children’s health insurance bills and is ideologically opposed to any form of universal health insurance; even his support for climate change legislation is tempered by his support for windfall profits for the oil and energy industries.
As Albert Einstein noted, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. A vote for John McCain is a vote for more of the same disastrous policies.
I make no apologies for claiming that people who would vote for someone who doesn’t want to provide health insurance for poor children, who wants to further enrich the rich, and who thinks the Iraq War was a good idea, are taking positions which I consider both foolish and immoral. Political differences this great represent sharply opposing values and worldviews, and there’s nothing wrong with discussing them frankly.
In fact, America would be in better shape if people spoke up more often about injustice and incompetence without fear of being labeled strident or divisive. Mature people need not be afraid of offending others with direct talk, even if it sometimes includes recriminations (no doubt, all of us have probably done things or held views that we now view as foolish or unethical—it’s part of being human).
What separates ideologues and political hacks from reasoned critics is not the absence of strong language; it’s openness to opposing views, respecting people who don’t share our views, admitting that we could be wrong, and, of course, backing up claims with solid arguments.
In no small part, the reason that Democrats and progressives have failed to achieve many of their goals over the past decades is because they’ve failed to cast public policies in clear moral terms. Voters don’t often get excited over policy details, but they do get excited over principles.
Ironically, many of these Democrats and progressives (who have largely ceded all moral discourse to the religious right) are now worried that Obama’s “beyond partisanship” posture ignores the political struggles that will be required to enact his agenda.
They shouldn’t worry; Obama definitely gets it. He doesn’t believe that the entrenched interest groups and power centers will simply roll over for him.
His great gift is his ability to couch the major issues of the day in clear moral terms—what’s fair, what’s right, what’s sensible—and in this way appeal to the compassion and reasonableness of the American people.
He doesn’t need to convince every last American that his views are best. But by not shying away from making forceful statements about what’s right and what’s wrong, he very well may be able to convince a solid majority.