Many of us in the United States rely on our values to guide our everyday decisions. In addition, morality has always played a role in American politics, and is a key player in many of the social rights movements throughout our history. However, a growing trend today is morality being the main vehicle driving people’s political decisions, affecting their perceptions of individuals beyond politics. Political polarization being conflated with “moral clarity” in the United States has discouraged debate and conversation across parties, as opposing partisans are viewed as morally inferior beings. This allows for populist leaders to take advantage of the divisiveness now associated with morality, which is harmful to the integrity of our democracy.
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. 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. Choosing your political party based on your morals 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 communication.
Guan discusses how historically, the term “moral clarity” has been used in American politics to spark visceral feelings against a perceived enemy, whether it was during the times of the Soviet Union, or as a combatant against narcotics and opioid addiction. However, the “moral clarity” arguments seen today are fundamentally different from the use of morality in past politics. For example, the civil rights movement relied heavily on moral arguments to prove how it was wrong to segregate people by race, which wrongly established an inferiority complex of other races. In the past, most moral arguments were used to promote equality and to spark discussion about how our morals differ. Conversely, morality politics are used today to create a moral inferiority and to divide those with differing morals. More dangerously, it is being used by populist leaders to manipulate those who share the moral beliefs they align themselves with. When “moral clarity” is associated with political arguments, it can be used by populist leaders like a weapon in war to take down the other side. Rather than encouraging discussion and debate to make a change, populists use moral clarity arguments to rally support and force change.
The use of “moral clarity” to invalidate the opposition 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. 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 the populist Scott Walker. As a populist, Walker was able to take advantage of this split in identity to culminate a resentment and cut off any understanding of the previous government.
Research done by Iyengar and Krupenkin explores how identity politics have begun to shape the moral preferences of people, based on 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 discrimination against 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 affiliation. Their research shows how most people are unwilling to have any sort of debate or conversation with someone who they view as “bad” or “wrong”, stemming from their moral certainty. In addition, research from the Pew Research Center outlines how negatively partisans view the opposition. According to a survey they completed following the 2016 election, 49% of Republicans surveyed were afraid of the Democratic Party, and 55% of Democrats were afraid of the Republican Party. Their research indicates that most partisans view the opposition as more than morally wrong, but dangerous to the state of our democracy.
This good vs. evil dynamic being established in our political parties is yet another way that populists are able to degrade democratic institutions. Amy Gutman discusses how in addition to restricting conversation, populists use extremist rhetoric to heighten the “good vs. evil” paradigm, which creates an enemy and instills fear about those with opposing viewpoints. Gutman points out the simplicity of this paradigm, which makes it appealing and easy for partisans to understand, especially combined with persuasive populist rhetoric. When people see others and their positions as a genuine threat, they are willing to support any candidate that will eliminate them, according to research done by Miller and Conover. This idea normalizes the concept of populists working outside the restraints of democratic institutions, so that they can get rid of a perceived threat. These actions have the potential to further damage democratic institutions beyond simply conversation, and it stems from the excessive association of morality with politics by extreme populist politicians.
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. Morality is vital in a functioning democratic society, however, in isolation, it can be used to erode the principles of conversation and contestation necessary for a functioning democracy.