How a Moral Crisis Underlies America’s Political Crisis

This piece ran in newspapers in my very red district in mid-May and early June, 2019


In my 2015 book, What We’re Up Against, I argue that — in the human world, perceived in purely secular terms, — one can see two coherent forces operating: forces that might reasonably be called “good” and “evil.”

I show further that these two forces – one of which works to enhance the experience of living beings and the other to degrade it – are in continuous battle against each other over the power to shape the destiny of humankind.

Because that battle is central to the human drama, woe to that society in which confusion reigns over matters of good and evil. Indeed, I maintain that the peril that now threatens America is largely due to such “moral confusion.”

The conservative and liberal parts of America have each shown their own forms of that moral confusion. And it is the combination of their two moral misunderstandings that has brought the United States to the present dark and dangerous moment.

Only rarely do people knowingly and deliberately choose to support “evil.” But history provides many examples of people mistaking the evil for the good. And that is basic moral error that — increasingly over the past quarter century — the people on the right have been making.
But, having devoted a great many columns to illustrating that “conservative” error, I want to focus now on the error on the liberal side.
For starters, it is remarkable that it hardly seems to occur to American liberals that they must have played an essential enabling role in this calamitous rise in power of the evil force that’s taken over the right. But how could it be otherwise?

Isn’t it obvious that if the conduct of one party in a two-party nation became progressively more disgraceful and destructive, while at the same time becoming ever more powerful through democratic elections, something must have been seriously wrong with the other party?

As for what that “something” is that’s seriously wrong with the Democratic Party, I’ve written for years that throughout this era the Democrats’ characteristic error has been a consistent failure to match the intensity the Republicans have brought to the ongoing political battle – i.e. to the take-no-prisoners quest for power that the Republicans have insisted will define the politics of this era.

Then there’s the question as to the source of this liberal weakness. The answer I propose is that – if the moral error of American conservatives of this era has been mistaking the evil for the good – the error of much of Liberal America has been a failure to recognize that the issue of good vs. evil is real, and vital to the fate of the human world.

I spent much of the 90s challenging liberal moral culture’s tenuous hold on the reality of the moral dimension—challenging the notion that beliefs about morality are “just a matter of opinion,” that “reality” affords no solid ground on which to condemn anything so long as the people involved think “it’s right for them.”

In a radio discussion I conducted on Wisconsin Public Radio on the subject of “Judgment,” many liberal callers equated making a moral judgment with being “judgmental.” Not believing there to be any ground for distinguishing between right and wrong moral beliefs, these liberal callers (paradoxically) condemned passing such judgments.

Those liberals definitely had values. But they also entertained beliefs that interfered with making a whole-hearted connection with them. So over the past generation, while the Republicans increasingly

• demonstrating indifference to the good of the nation in a single-minded effort to grab more power
• and working to give more power to the mightiest and more wealth to the richest, at the expense of the well-being of Americans generally

many Democrats could observe all this without being wholeheartedly aflame with moral outrage. And therefore they were unable to denounce such conduct with the moral power necessary to awaken the American people to see the gathering evil for what it was.

Without a clear grasp of how forces of good and evil operate in the world, the Democrats could witness how the Republicans were
• trafficking in lies– to an extent well beyond what is customary in the politics of a democratic society – and poisoning their followers’ minds
• trampling on the system of norms that generations of Americans had constructed to help maintain “liberty and justice for all”
yet fail to see where those paths led. And thus, failing to perceive that their world was changing in dangerous ways, the Democrats could stand by complacently.

A kind of moral blindness has afflicted Liberal America. At least until Trump. Seeing in Trump the same wolf, but now with no the sheep’s clothing to obscure its nature, began to awaken Liberal America to the real stakes in the battle. And now we must hope that it is not too late.

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