5 Takeaways from Vote 2012

Values & moral concerns resonate in an economy-driven election

BY: G. Jeffrey MacDonald


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Demographic shifts point in Democrats’ favor, as the ranks of Hispanics, single adults and people with no religious ties all continue to grow. If there’s a shared value system holding these disparate groups together, it might revolve around this conviction: let’s promote wider sharing of all that’s good in America, from steady wages to freedom to marry the person of one’s choice. But “sharing” in many contexts means curtailing what individuals can do. That might eventually chafe this constituency somewhat if and when the ‘let’s share’ principle gets written into law.

4) Establishment values are safe with Republicans. People who might fancy themselves as stalwarts of society – married women, weekly churchgoers and high earners, for example – voted overwhelmingly for Romney. These are people who, if we may generalize, tend to value societal stability and the taking of personal responsibility for one’s affairs. In other words, they value holding people accountable, sometimes by letting markets mete out discipline and sometimes by enforcing limits on what individuals may do.

Being an establishment-friendly party isn’t especially promising, however, at a time when more and more people feel alienated from institutions. If there’s hope here, it’s for the moral value of accountability to be applied meaningfully to powerful corporations and individuals, along with everyone else. If establishment pillars get a free pass, then lip service to accountability will ring hollow and disingenuous. A party that seems unwilling to use power judiciously won’t appeal to fairness-minded, religious voters forever.

5) Issues framed in moral terms resonate. The religious right might be smarting after Vote 2012, but moral concerns in public life are far from defeated. Candidates such as Elizabeth Warren framed issues in terms of moral responsibilities. Example: holding white-collar lawbreakers accountable. A presumed duty to protect the vulnerable, articulated by Nuns on the Bus and others, gave a moral architecture to President Obama’s victorious campaign.

In Alabama, concerns for public morality helped so-called “10 Commandments Judge” Roy Moore win election to the state’s highest judicial post. Moral arguments for the sanctity of life carried the day as Massachusetts voters shot down efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

Even successful same-sex marriage initiatives in Maryland, Maine and Washington were framed not only in terms of tolerance but as “the right thing to do” in terms of extending marriage benefits beyond heterosexual couples. Voters of all stripes seem to want governance from a place of moral conviction.

If there’s any loser in 2012, it might be the notion that one cannot or should not legislate morality. Moral codes are very much driving what’s afoot in red states, blue states and the nation’s capitol. The specifics and interpretations just happen to vary – sometimes quite a bit – from one setting to the next.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a journalist, ordained minister and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010). Check out his work here.

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