The Role of Changing “Moral Orders” in America’s Crisis

This piece is an op/ed version of the more substantial piece, “Moral Exo-Skeletons and Endo-Skeletons: A Key Divide in the American Body Politic,” found on this site. This op/ed version appeared in newspapers in Virginia in January, 2002.


There’s an idea in wide currency in Liberal America that what’s driving so many in Conservative America to support the dark force that’s taken over the right is concern that the long-standing dominance of their racial group – which they’ve long enjoyed in America – is slipping away from them. According to this notion, it is the fear and anger about that loss of dominance that has led them to embrace some ugly politics.

Clearly, that’s a part of the truth—as we’ve seen white supremacists marching around Charlottesville chanting, “You will not replace us”; and we’ve seen a President be able to maintain the complete allegiance of Conservative America while openly encouraging the denizens of groups like neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

But I would argue it’s a smaller part of the truth than is generally believed. There’s something even more fundamental than racial dominance that Conservative America feels it is losing: namely, they’ve lost a kind of moral order on which they depended.

Moral orders – in a society, and in the psyche of the individual members — might be divided in to two types, which might be called the “Endo-Skeleton” and “Exo-skeleton.”

  • The endo-skeleton morality is one in which – just as our internal skeleton gives our body shape from the inside – people have internalized a moral structures in a way that makes it unnecessary for the surrounding society to enforce its moral strictures on them. They decide for themselves what’s right or wrong, and act accordingly.
  • By contrast, the members of a society with the exo-skeletal kind of morality rely on the forces of society – shaming, ostracizing, prosecuting – to help them (or compel them) to act in accordance with the community morality. (Such moral structure is especially to be found in more traditionalist societies and subcultures.)

In the past couple of generations, America has undergone a profound movement away from the Exo toward the Endo.

(That transformation epitomized by our going from an America in which all our movies were required to get the seal of approval from a Board that enforced moral standards, to an America in which movies can depict all sorts of things that would previously have been barred).

The retreat of the social enforcement of morality – allowing individuals much greater scope to act according to their own judgment – has compelled Exo-skeleton people to deal with a change in the balance of power in their moral structure: the forces that keep them on the straight-and-narrow path have been weakened, while the strength of their forbidden impulses (that society had formerly helped hold in check) remains the same.

For the exo-skeletal people, in their quest to align with righteousness, society had been an important ally. The retreat of that ally opens the door to the darker impulses taking over.

Perhaps here – in this weakening of the exo-skeleton moral order– lies part of the solution to that great mystery about Conservative America: how the people who used to declare credibly how sacred to them were their values  — Christian values, patriotic values, values of the constitutional order our founders gave us, values of good character – could give their whole-hearted support to a political party that so blatantly and consistently advances the very opposite of all those values.

As in the ancient myth of Pandora lifting the lid on the box, the lifting of the moral pressures of society would let loose into the world the exo-skeletals’ “forbidden impulses”: The lust for power. The greed. The hypocrisy. The lying and cheating to gratify one’s desires.

But such gratification leaves the exo-skeletals in Conservative America with a problem: they also have a strong need to see themselves as aligned with righteousness. How to reconcile that need to see themselves as righteous with the reality that the retreat of social-enforcement of morality has unleashed their forbidden impulses?

This moral dilemma provided the propagandists of the right with an opening.

Over the course of a generation, sociopathic propagandists — like Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes (of Fox News), Karl Rove and eventually Donald Trump —  provided those distressed exo-skeletal conservatives a solution (of a sort) to their moral dilemma, while also transforming people who’d once been more-or-less aligned with those good conservative values into supporters of what they’d previously have called Evil.

The “solution” provided by those propagandists led the people in the Republican base onto a path where they could satisfy their need to see themselves as righteous by focusing solely on certain issues – like abortion, homosexuality – on which they perceive themselves as representing the Word of God. (Issues, moreover, of no consequence to those whose obsessions involve power and wealth.)

With all the moral concern focused on those pieces of the picture – pieces that, not coincidentally, are of no consequence to their manipulators, whose obsessions involve power and wealth — the exo-skeletals were also taught to blind themselves to the blatant way the political force they support represents the opposite of all the values Conservatives have always held sacred.

Blind themselves, that is, to how the political party to which they give their allegiance is acting out their own dark impulses (of greed, domination, deceit, and hatred) which, in today’s more Endo-Skeletal America, they can no longer control.

It’s a solution that works, albeit at the cost of political sanity.

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