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Moral Politics and the Polls

By Noah I. Dauber

Watching the situation of morals in politics these days is kind of like viewing a silent slapstick film. Just as the actors scurry around the sets as fast as possible hoping for a laugh, our legislators are pulling every trick in the book trying to capitalize on the current vogue for morality. Indeed, spurred on by eager pollsters, the Republicans are convinced these days that the people want moral action. Unfortunately, the people are not very clear about what sort of moral action they want taken, and the Republicans are left spinning their wheels trying to capture the sentiment. Meanwhile, the Democrats in the White House talk up the moral quality of every issue under the sun.

The confusion is understandable. What is a hard-working elected representative supposed to do when the only direction he gets from the people is that they want direction? This dilemma has been examined carefully by Dan Carney in a recent issue of Congressional Quarterly. As reported there, Republican polling services, like Marketing Research Institute of Florida, rank moral issues above economic issues in importance to the voting public. This is a new mood in U.S. politics, and it has caught our lawmakers unprepared.

The strategy of choice at the moment is the default strategy of politics: expediency. Both the Republicans and the Democrats have decided to play up morality by introducing relatively narrow pieces of legislation, such as bills pertaining to school choice, vouchers and gun safety. There is good sense in this strategy, since more contentious bills--like a sweeping anti-abortion bill on the part of the Republicans--have failed for their ambition. Of course, the people may not want good sense or politics-as-usual. To the lawmakers' chagrin, these narrower issues have not managed to excite the public.

Senator Robert C. Smith (R-NH) sums up the state of affairs in the Republican party in the Congressional Quarterly: "I don't think we've had a real good policy debate on these issues in the party. We have to step back and ask what we stand for and where we are going." The need is clear: the U.S. wants a coherent and principled moral agenda.

In a more old-fashioned political theory this is the part where the miraculous lawgiver steps up to bat. It may be Moses or Solon or Lycurgus or God. He is uncommonly wise with a gift for lawmaking and an impeccable moral vision. His legislation is both moral and politic, popular and wise. Of course, the picture isn't completely rosy. Sometimes the people do not understand the message or the messenger. The people of Israel lose faith in Moses; the ten commandments are shattered at the foot of Sinai.

As unwelcoming as the people of Israel were, we are probably more stubborn in our skepticism. The professor-types tell us that we do not believe in big narratives any more. The moral foundation of this argument, the group politics of ethnicity and gender, make it difficult to imagine a single party capturing the moral imagination of America. By splitting morality into a set of policy issues, such as inner-city development and national testing, the parties hope to gather up as many of these special interests as possible. But by trying to please every one, the parties may end up not pleasing any one.

To be fair, this may not be the fault of our ruling parties. It is possible that the moral direction the public is looking for cannot be found in government. In fact, the failure of the government presents an opportunity for the other social institutions--the churches, synagogues, journals of opinion and museums. These groups may not have access to the sophisticated polling instruments that the politicians use, but given the opportunity, that should not prevent them from taking advantage of the government's loss of initiative.

These institutions must explain why education policy is not the alpha and omega of a moral life. If the traditional institutions do not live up to this task, new ones will take their place. The Promise Keepers, a hybrid of traditional associationism and new-fangled group politics, gives us a taste of things to come. On the other hand, as the Pope's recent theatrical appearances in South America signal, the traditional forces are not down for the count just yet.

As Senator Smith explained, the parties lack a coherent and considered viewpoint. At the moment, they are trying to stitch together a moral politics by introducing legislation that resonates with a variety of groups. They appeal to the middle class with promises of tax credits for school-related spending, to the lower class with promises of inner-city development packages, to soccer moms with promises of child-proof gun locks. The other social institutions ought to move now, before the next wave of polling data comes in, and the parties get it together.

Noah I. Dauber's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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