Many of us in the United States rely on our values to guide our everyday decisions, and rightfully so. Our morality is what motivates us to help the less fortunate, to always tell the truth, and to hopefully “do the right thing”, even when no one is looking. The thing about morality is it is often conditional and subjective, meaning that our morals are shaped by our individual life experiences and preferences. However, a growing trend in politics is morality being the main vehicle driving peoples decisions. The problem with this is that many people view their morals as “absolute”, and therefore believe anyone else who does not share their views is wrong. The growing trend of morality politics in the United States has discouraged debate and conversation across parties, which will be harmful to the integrity of our democracy in the long run.
In an article from the New York Times titled “What could be Wrong With A Little Moral Clarity”, Frank Guan discusses the power of “moral clarity” as a weapon of words in today’s politics. Reporters and politicians from both sides of the aisle use this term as a high ground to distinguish good from evil. “Moral clarity” has been used in American politics to spark visceral feelings against a perceived enemy, whether it’s during the times of the Soviet Union, or as a combatant against narcotics and opioid addiction. However, today, “moral clarity” is yet another tool both the left and the right use to distinguish themselves from one another. Economic inequality, social injustice, and climate change are all examples of “moral clarity” stances from the left, while the right has focused their argument on family values, religious views, and social liberties.
The difference in the use of “moral clarity” between parties, as pointed out by Guan, is indicative of the underlying problem with morality politics. As individuals, we have our own moral preferences, meaning regardless of the deeper reasoning, we choose to place a precedence on certain moral issues that we care about. For this reason, many people today align themselves with a political party based on these moral preferences. For example, a person may feel inclined to support the Democratic party if they feel that equal marriage rights are of utmost importance, and someone else may support the Republican party if they believe in a strong religious stance. Choosing your political party based on your values is not the inherent problem, however, it is the refusal to acknowledge other moral standpoints because of your own values and party affiliation that has led to a decline in our democracy.
This reliance on one correct moral standpoint has already led to signs of democratic decline in states like Wisconsin. In Katherine Cramer’s book, the Politics of Resentment, she discusses social identity theory and the rural consciousness, which is the way in which many southern Wisconsinites separate themselves from northern Wisconsin. This rural consciousness is rooted in moral beliefs, feeling that the government in northern Wisconsin had previously supported tourism rather than their own“hardworking” farmers and small businesses that make up the southern part of the state. These morals of these southern Wisconsinites are rooted in their own personal histories, based on what they know “hard work” to be. However, this has caused them to view the northern Wisconsinites as corrupt and uncaring towards the values that they cared deeply about. The moral preferences of the people of southern Wisconsin is how they aligned themselves with Scott Walker, but this, in turn, culminated a resentment towards the previous government.
Research done by Iyengar and Krupenkin also show how identity politics has begun to shape the moral preferences of people, based on their party affiliation. In their article, “The Strengthening of Partisan Effect” Iyengar and Krupenkin also discuss social identity and how it has it has led to the discrimination of people of the opposite party. They talk about affective polarization and how people tend to view those of the opposing party negatively, solely based on their party affiliation. Like the argument made by Kramer, this is rooted in a moral standpoint, viewing the opposing party as genuinely bad people because of the policies they support. Their research is indicative of the fact that most people are unwilling to have any sort of debate or conversation with someone who they view as “bad or wrong”. Political parties are now becoming a part of the “personal history” as discussed earlier, which is only leading to greater polarization and disconnect between parties and their moral alignments. Both sets of research from Kramer and Iyengar and Krupenkin show the dangers of absolute morality in restricting democratic processes.
It is important to remember that we can’t function on our own morality alone. In order to exchange ideas, we must recognize the validity of all moral stances, because more often than not there is a deep meaning behind why someone holds a certain opinion. This doesn’t mean giving up your morals, it simply means to not let your morals cloud your perspective. Once we do this, we can open up discussion and truly come to realize that most of us share the same values, we just differ on which ones we care about most. Morality is vital in a functioning democratic society, however, in isolation it can erode the principles of conversation and contestation necessary for a functioning democracy.