When the political history of the last 30 years is written, scholars no doubt will describe a rightward revolution that jolted this country out of its embrace of New Deal, big-government progressivism and into a love affair with small-government conservatism. But this change, significant as it is, has been undergirded by a less apparent but no less monumental revolution that has transformed the nation’s values, ideals and aspirations. Over those same 30 years, we have become a different country morally from what we were.
The United States always has had a complex national moral system. On the one hand, there is the Puritan-inflected America of rugged individualism, hard work, self-reliance and personal responsibility in which you reap what you sow, God helps those who help themselves, and our highest obligation is to live righteously. These precepts run from Cotton Mather to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Billy Graham.
On the other hand, there also is an America of community, common cause, charity and collective responsibility. In this America, salvation comes from good works, compassion is among the greatest of virtues, and our highest obligation is to help others. These precepts run from Walt Whitman to the late 19th century Social Gospel movement to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
These two moralities managed to coexist — often within the same person — because they were not seen as mutually exclusive, especially in the 20th century. Nor was either the province of one political party or the other. Conservatives could subscribe to the ideals of generosity and compassion, just as liberals could subscribe to hard work and individual responsibility. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson’s famous declaration in his first inaugural address after the contentious 1800 election that “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” one could say that Americans in general were all believers in the Protestant ethic, all believers in the Social Gospel.
Or at least that is the way it was.
But over the last 30 years or so, something has happened to reshape the country’s moral geography. Everyone knows about the rise of Moral Majority-style Christian evangelicals as a potent force in right-wing politics. It injected a certain aggressive moralism into our political discourse and led to campaigns against abortion rights, homosexual rights, sexual freedom and other issues perceived as and then framed as moral matters. As a result, our politics became “moralized”; they were transformed into a contest of one set of values pitted against another.
This was hardly the first time politics was overtaken by morality. One has only to think of abolition and Prohibition. The difference this time was that as politics were being moralized and polarized, our morals also were being politicized and polarized. The two moral systems that had so long coexisted suddenly became mutually exclusive, oppositional and finally inseparable from the two regnant political ideologies.
One can see this division in something as simple as the denigration of the term “liberal,” the “L” word, with its attendant idea that to be compassionate, caring and tolerant — virtues that had been celebrated, if only via lip service, by most Americans — is really to be mush-minded, weak and, more concretely, willing to give taxpayer largesse to the undeserving and lazy. (This was essentially the argument that some Republicans, such as former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., used when they sought to deny an extension of unemployment benefits.)
It is easy to miss how significant a change this is. It transforms compassion, a bulwark in practically any moral system, into a negative force that undermines the good of individual initiative. Indeed, conservative ideologue Marvin Olasky wrote a book to this effect, pungently titled “The Tragedy of American Compassion,” in which he called for the privatization of all charitable efforts. It rapidly became a conservative touchstone.
By the same token, liberals have come to see the emphasis on the individual and self-reliance as a form of civic irresponsibility and selfishness — a way to justify rogue economic behavior and enrichment at the expense of the community. It was, incidentally, a charge adherents of the novelist Ayn Rand gladly invited because they believe that selfishness is a tough, exalted form of morality. Thus were the moral sides drawn: soft-headed versus tough-minded, big-hearted versus stony-hearted.
So far, tough-mindedness and its patron conservatism — which drew these battle lines — easily are winning the day.
Perhaps it is as simple a matter as self-interest always overpowering communal interest when there isn’t some countervailing force such as religion or civic shame to contain it, but by seeking to conflate morality and politics and by discrediting such things as civil rights law, health care reform and financial regulation — all fueled by a sense of fairness and compassion — the right has succeeded in making the moral verities of the Protestant ethic seem more moral than the verities of the Social Gospel. In effect, morality is now the preserve of the right.
Scarcely a generation ago, you wouldn’t have found many conservatives who would have sneered at compassion or tolerance or fundamental fairness, even if they disagreed with liberals on how these concepts might operate in the real world. Today, open contempt for these values is conservative boilerplate for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, and even for the Republican Party itself, whose idea of cutting government is always cutting programs that help the weakest and least fortunate Americans and whose idea of compassion is caring about the tax burden of the wealthiest Americans. Beyond politics, these attitudes threaten to make this the first generation that promulgates an individualism untempered by common decency.
None of this is to say that conservatives don’t sometimes act in ways that demonstrate compassion, though that compassion is more likely to be exercised for victims of natural disasters than for victims of social disasters or for victims of overzealous regulation than of the callous market. Just ask those who have lost their health insurance and want national health care, or those who want to save the environment — none of whom receive succor from the right.
But it is to say that this moral reconfiguration has not only changed our politics and our perception of morality; it has changed us. If compassion is seen as softness, tolerance as a kind of promiscuity, community as a leech on individuals and fairness as another word for scheming, we are a harder nation than we used to be, and arguably a less moral one as well. In undergoing a revolution for the nation’s soul, we may have found ourselves losing it.
Neal Gabler is at work on a biography of Edward M. Kennedy. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.