Amy Sullivan will blog for Beliefnet during the week of June 20. Sullivan is an editor of The Washington Monthly. She has written about religion and politics for publications including the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and The Washington Post, and has served as a commentator for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NPR's Morning Edition, and other news outlets. Previously, Sullivan served as a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle and as editorial director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. She holds degrees from the University of Michigan and Harvard Divinity School.

Democrats and Moral Values--They Still Don't Get It

It's my last day as liberal-blogger-of-the-week, and, as usual, I've managed to postpone writing about some of the really big issues out there because I wanted to give them sufficient space and attention. It's even worse this time, because I've been storing up some thoughts and analyses of the huge Democrats and Moral Values question for a good four or five months now, and it's possible that if I don't get them out of my head and into the ether, I may spontaneously combust. So a big thank you and bear hug to Beliefnet for giving me this perfect forum, and to you the readers for your patience.

[Deep breath.] So. A few weeks ago, while everyone was still in a tizzy about his "Republicans are all a bunch of white Christians" comments, Howard Dean went and said something that I found more interesting and that naturally went unnoticed by basically everyone. Here's the Washington Post's article on it:

Democratic Chairman Howard Dean told party leaders yesterday that casting traditionally liberal issues in moral terms is a key to breaking Republican's eight-year hold on the White House.... "We have not spoken about moral values in this party for a long time," Dean said. "The truth is, we're Democrats because of our moral values. It's a moral value to make sure that kids don't go to bed hungry at night.... It is a moral value not to go out on golf trips paid for by lobbyists..... People don't know where we stand on a lot of issues.
What you have there is a mixture of George Lakoff and Thomas Frank with a little Mark Mellman thrown in for good measure. And a pretty good indication that Democrats--or at least their party leader--still don't get it.Now, don't get me wrong. Democratic policies reflect my moral principles much better than nearly anything Republicans do. If you take seriously admonitions to care for the most vulnerable in society, to care for the sick, the imprisoned, the young and the old, at the end of the day, you'll find more to support in a Democratic platform than a Republican one. But, and this is important, Democrats have a credibility problem. For far too long, they've talked about these issues in very abstract, utilitarian terms, taking care to stay as far as possible from terms like "morals" or "values" or "faith" and ceding those concepts to the Republican Party. As one writer recently put it: "Democrats tell voters, 'We know what you need.' Republicans tell voters, 'We know who you are.'"

That's critical. Just calling Democratic priorities "moral values" will not make them so in the minds of voters (even though, as we know, promoting peace and protecting the environment and ending poverty are every bit moral values). Nor will helpfully informing voters that they really need to start caring more about their economic interests do much for the Democrats. Why? Because it's paternalistic, it's saying, We know better than you what's good for you.

Those voters in Ohio last year were not unaware that they were voting against their economic self-interest. They were pretty darn familiar with the fact that they'd just lost their jobs or their healthcare or their retirement. What they said with their votes--and what Democrats have apparently not yet heard--is that something else is more important to them. They couldn't have made it any clearer than they did.

That something else isn't necessarily gay marriage or abortion. Sure, there are some voters who go home at night and truly worry about those issues. But most don't. They're concerned, instead, about the kind of cultural environment in which their kids are growing up, about the fact that they work so many hours that parents barely see kids and spouses barely see each other. These anxieties have a moral tinge to them. And while the Republican solutions that are proffered--banning gay marriage and abortion--don't resonate deeply with these voters, they do resonate. They're fake solutions, but they're better than no solutions.