Once again, Democrats are “rethinking” what they stand for. After previous defeats, such “rethinkings” resulted in rightward drifts. Democrats courted upscale suburban swing voters and steadily distanced themselves from the party's working-class roots.
They urged tax cuts for the middle class, welfare reform, and fiscal responsibility. After John Kerry's defeat, though, moving right could take on new meaning -- accepting more restrictions on abortion, less tolerance for gays, more God in public places, and a more unilateral and militaristic foreign policy. No matter how cowed and dispirited they may be, Democrats mustn't succumb to this. But it is surely time for Democrats to take a moral stand for what they believe.
A moral stand is different from a religious one. George W. Bush conflated the two into a moralistic agenda -- not just God and gays but also true grit in fighting the evils of Saddam Hussein and global terrorism. Kerry's was a policy agenda -- middle-class tax cuts and fiscal probity along with affordable health care and a more “nuanced” strategy for combating terrorism. Bush spoke about right and wrong as matters of righteousness and faith. Kerry spoke of right and wrong as matters of strategy: He had the right way to get the economy moving again and to fight al-Qaeda; Bush was heading the wrong way.
Americans didn't reject Kerry's policies. They just didn't pay much attention to them. It was Bush's moral vision that was more compelling. Kerry kept saying he had a “plan” for this and that, but after 40 years of mounting distrust in government, voters no longer take plans very seriously. It's when candidates speak with righteous indignation -- with passion and conviction about what is morally right to do or morally wrong -- that they can inspire. Kerry was more correct than Bush on policy, but Kerry's policies didn't inspire. Bush was wrong on policy (most Americans disagreed with him about the war in Iraq and the economy), but his conviction did inspire.
The lesson for Democrats is not to bring religion into politics. Religion must remain a personal matter. (One caveat: Democrats should be clear they want fewer abortions -- not by prohibiting them but by giving young people access to contraceptives, family-planning counseling, and other social services.) The real lesson is that Democrats must project a moral vision of what America can become; do it with passion and conviction, and with faith that it can be achieved.
What moral vision? Democrats used to speak passionately about social justice, and it should still be the core of the Democrats' morality. It's morally wrong to give huge tax cuts to the rich while cutting social programs for the poor and working class -- especially when the gap between the rich and everyone else is wider than it's been in more than a century. As to “family values,” the nation has a moral obligation to give every child a good education and decent health care. And it's morally wrong that millions of Americans who work full time don't earn enough to lift their families out of poverty.
There's also an ever-larger issue of corporate morality. Executives who steal money from their investors and employees are morally reprehensible. Those whose companies are highly profitable but who nonetheless fire thousands of their employees at a time are, at the least, morally suspect. And our foreign policy raises the most fundamental of moral issues. It's morally wrong to kill more than 100,000 Iraqis and send more than 1,100 young Americans to their deaths for a cause that is still undefined and a war that was unnecessary.
Democrats have never put their faith in a particular God or Scripture. Their faith has been that through working together we can craft a better nation and world. “Keeping the faith” has meant working against almost impossible odds, often without hard evidence that the work will bear fruit. It has necessitated boundless energy and absurd optimism even in the darkest times. That faith needs to be reaffirmed. Without it, progress toward a just society is not possible.
The right wing has fanned the flames of cultural populism, casting Democrats as elites who are out of touch with the needs and values of ordinary Americans. Rubbish. It's Republican elites who have turned their backs on average working people. The only way for Democrats to fight cultural populism is with an economic populism grounded in conviction and faith. Plans and policies are important, of course. But unless or until Democrats return to larger questions of public morality, they won't inspire a doornail.
Robert B. Reich is co-founder of The American Prospect.