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moral values in politics
January 2021: The US presidential election on 3 November 2020, and events in the weeks that followed, reinforced the notion that America is deeply polarized along partisan lines: Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, red and blue. At the heart of the division, and its potential repair, is the weight afforded moral values in American politics. American city mayors have taken the lead in defending and applying core values to make systemic change.
In the November 2020 US presidential election, Donald Trump, running as a Republican, received 74.2 million votes, not enough to win, but more than enough to reinforce the sense of a divided America. As president, Trump used lying, mockery, bullying, race-baiting, and indecency as governing tools. He brazenly flouted the courts and the law, actively undermined public integrity, and willfully spread mistrust and cynicism.
Does this mean that every Trump voter decided that honesty, empathy, integrity, and self-restraint are not qualifications for the president of the United States? (1)
The question is rhetorical, but also political. In the United States, it is precisely a political leader’s moral values that lend authority to power.
There are 257.6 million adults 18 years of age and over in the United States. Donald Trump received votes from 74.2 million of these adults, or 28.8% of the total US adult population. (2)
A 2020 survey conducted before the election by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, found that 63% of all US adults considered it very important to have a president who personally lives a moral, ethical life. The remaining 37% of respondents said a moral, ethical lifestyle was a somewhat important (31%) or a not too/not at all important (6%) qualification for a US president.
In other words, the proportion of the US adult population for whom moral values are an ambiguous or unimportant qualification for a president (37%) is roughly similar to the proportion of votes that Trump received (28.8%). (3)
Moral values in society and politics
Moral values are not provable but are real in the sense that they have been part of human life since the beginning of recorded history. The sacred texts everywhere define personal and social rights and wrongs. All the major faiths have implicit definitions of oppression and liberation, privilege and underprivilege, rulership and subjecthood, victor and victim built into them. All major religions retain some belief that no bad deed goes unpunished. This ancient wisdom gives meaning to life by making the individual part of a coherent whole. All major faiths teach that the person who lives with values gains a sense of wider meaning to her or his existence and is raised beyond mere getting and spending.
In America, moral values structure politics. Journalist Michael Gerson writes that “Democracy is not merely a set of procedures. It has a moral structure. The values Americans celebrate or stigmatize eventually influence the character of its people and polity. [American-style] democracy does not insist on perfect virtue from its leaders, but there is a set of values that lends authority to power: empathy, honesty, integrity, and self-restraint.” (4)
Examples of how moral values structure politics are everywhere in the US.
For example, values currently help Americans identify their responsibilities as consumers, not only to their moral or religious beliefs, but also to the labor that made the commodities they are consuming. Values help frame current discussions about fair trade, supply chains, sweat shops, human rights, data capture and personal privacy, and corporations’ responsibility to behave ethically. Values define how Americans live with nature, how they treat the environment.
In the US, there persists a bedrock belief that the market can improve society through self-interest. Self-interest is a moral and political stance, a way of answering the ultimate moral question of whether it is reasonable to be concerned about the rights and interests of other people.
In recent years, many Americans have begun to question the basic principle of individualism. They are directing their moral values beyond individual problems to wider economic and social systems; that is, beyond private ethics to social ethics. Moral values are the heart and soul of Black Lives Matter and other movements for social justice, the belief that Americans, as a society, should not judge people based on racist ideas and prejudices.
In recent decades, American urban mayors have been at the forefront of broader change. Agitation for economic, environmental, political, and social change in the United States has frequently started at the local level with city mayors often becoming the face of a movement: Mayor Murial Bowser of Washington, DC for Black Lives Matter; Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York City for climate change; Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta for equity; Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago for sanctuary cities; Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle for a living wage; among other notable activist mayors.
These mayors, like many other American mayors, may not wear their moral values on their sleeves, but rely on them to guide their actions. And their mayoral actions have been decidedly different from those of elected officials at the national level. Rather than seek the welfare of the whole, federal officials, especially in the past four years, seem to spend more time scrambling for benefits for their party at the expense of the opposing party; rather than see challenges ahead like climate change and inequality, federal elected officials seem obsessed with past political conflicts.
It is not a coincidence that, as president, Donald Trump belittled and mocked by name the mayors of New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Rochester, Portland, Seattle, San Juan, Lawrence, New Hampshire, and other cities. City mayors challenged not only the policies of the Trump administration but also offered an alternative vision of the future of America based on respect for the long-established values Trump actively resisted.
As a presidential candidate in 2020, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, spoke candidly and lovingly about his Episcopal faith, especially its power of inclusiveness. He also encouraged his fellow city mayors, especially his Democratic counterparts, to express their moral values more explicitly. Mayor Buttigieg told CNN he felt he had no alternative: “I’ve got to speak up, if only to point out the hypocrisies of those now in power” who weaponize religion for their own selfish gain, fomenting bigotry and fear. “Because my [Democratic] party’s been so allergic to religious language, we’ve forgotten that people need to be made aware of their choice,” he said.
Implicit in Mayor Buttigieg’s advocacy for a more explicit appeal to values in politics is the idea that many Americans are unaware of the full range of their moral choices. In other words, Americans who believe that ethical behavior is at best only somewhat important for a president are not hypocrites. Rather, their awareness of how values affect their lives and those of others is inadequate.
There is also the idea that some values, like honesty, empathy, integrity, and self-restraint, are worth defending by all Americans; indeed, they are universal core values of American life.
Over the past four years, it seems that bigotry and greed have been given more opportunity for expression in the US. Those who embody core moral values find themselves on the defensive. And it seems that, among all US elected officials, it is most often urban mayors who come to the defense of those caught on the wrong side of events beyond their control.
Urban mayors in the United States are elected with the expectation that they will work to understand the unique challenges that people in their cities face in their everyday lives and will work to find concrete solutions for overcoming those daily barriers. This is the nuts and bolts of local government. Mayors speak of public works, public safety, and public spending, and most often speak without explicit reference to values.
Yet the actions and policies of urban American mayors are being used to defend core American values in a strikingly similar way. Urban mayors throughout the US are:
• Challenging an economy which expects people to work without dignity, without an awareness of being exploited, without meaningful work goals.
• Facilitating community-wide discussions of how discrimination and prejudice impacts minds, as well as bodies.
• Highlighting the ways in which all city and regional residents are interdependent.
• Realizing there cannot be true dialogue until each participant is convinced there is something to learn from the others.
• Never questioning whether all residents own the city together.
• Making risks understood and accepted among the general city population.
The goal is to expand the awareness of human-made suffering and develop systemic solutions. As philosopher Bertrand Russell has pointed out, social values always lag behind personal values; thus, systemic solutions to racism, exploitation of the environment, and authoritarianism are possible only when these problems are broadly seen as harmful, destructive, and counterproductive, which is exactly what many mayors of American cities are trying to do.
Moral values are intangible and invisible, so talk of defending values is shadow boxing in a sense. Politicians can use them to cast long shadows, especially when they appeal to moral values to advance their political agenda.
In recent years, urban mayors in the US have assumed an inordinate responsibility among political leaders for defending core moral values against perceived crumbling defenses and for applying them to advance systemic change.
(1) Michael Gerson posed this question in The Last Temptation: How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory. The Atlantic. April 2018.
(2) United States Elections Project. 2020 November General Election Turnout Rates.
The US adult population 18 years of age and over of 257.6 million is also the voting age population. However, 8.3 million US adults were not eligible to vote in 2020 due to felony convictions or noncitizenship. Of the voting-eligible population of 249.3 million, 154.8 million Americans actually voted for president.
(3) Pew Research Center. White Evangelicals See Trump as Fighting for Their Beliefs, Though Many have Mixed Feelings about His Personal Conduct. Survey conducted February 4-15, 2020, among US adults.
The same survey also asked, How well does “morally upstanding” describe Donald Trump? Sixty-seven percent of respondents said not too/not at all well. Thirty-two percent said fairly well (24%) or very well (8%). That is, the proportion of the population that considered Trump at least somewhat morally upstanding (32%) was similar to the 29.8 percent of the votes Trump received from the total US population.
(4) Michael Gerson. Op. cit.
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