The Good in Good Politics

The Moral Center by David Callahan (Harcourt, 260 pages, $24.00)

Ever since the 2004 exit polls, progressives have been puzzling over how to reclaim so-called values voters. Or, to put the problem another way, how can Democrats satisfy Americans' interests (the economy, stupid, and bring those troops home alive) while also appealing to their desires for moral direction? In The Moral Center, David Callahan tackles this conundrum with some fresh and provocative insights in the hope of advancing, as he says in the preface, "a different way of thinking about values."

Callahan accepts that most people worry about morality when they think about politics. Conservatives have distorted moral discussion, however, and reduced moral concerns to a narrow set of fleshy hot-button issues while ignoring justice and equality and giving little but lip service to compassion. But liberals, Callahan argues, have failed to recognize, understand, and speak to the "moral anxiety" citizens feel. Ordinary Americans, he says, "can't shake the feeling that American life is getting meaner and more degraded, and that everyone is out for themselves." Add to this his personal "sense of constantly being tugged away from my real values." After moving to New York City, Callahan found himself coveting fabulous townhouses and tuning out the beggars on the subway, all the while working for Demos, a liberal think tank he helped start. (Disclosure: Although I am not personally acquainted with him, Callahan, among other accomplishments, was the Prospect's first managing editor in 1990.)

Callahan translates this personal dissonance into a remarkable sensor for the moral anxieties of middle America. His first political insight is elegantly simple: People are troubled not only about what's going on outside in the public sphere, but also about what's happening to the internal moral compass in each of us. They're worried about whether they are good people, whether their children will grow up to be good, and whether our social environment permits and encourages people to be good.

Throughout the book, he shows that religious conservatives speak to moral anxieties. Can parents, schools, and churches shape children's values any longer in the face of television, the Internet, movies, video games, and consumer culture? Are the rich and powerful held to the same standards of behavior as everyone else? Is hard work rewarded and really a path to independence and security? Does anyone care about the poor? The solutions conservatives offer may be extreme -- sexual abstinence for the unmarried, back to the kitchen for mom, crude censorship for the media, grotesquely harsh punishment for minor infringements and wrist slaps for corporate disasters, to name a few -- but at least they say something's wrong and offer the possibility of changing our culture. Their appeal, Callahan says, resides not in their policy prescriptions, but in their moral concern, their hope, and their call to goodness. "Whatever you may think about Christian conservatives at least they offer a plan to get America on a different moral path," he writes.

Callahan's second political insight is perhaps obvious, but clever nonetheless. There's a "vacuum in the center" of moral debate. On every issue, the right and left have staked out extreme positions. Surely there's a moral position on sexuality between abstinence and it's-up-to-you-what-you-do-with-your-body. If Callahan is right that more and more people find the conservative message attractive merely because it addresses morality, liberals can win some of those people back by staking out centrist moral positions.
Positioning one's platform as the middle between two extremes is one of the rudiments of political strategy, so the idea of locating and occupying the moral center is strategically appealing. But is it intellectually and politically workable? Popular notions of morality, as well as the right's disdain for "moral relativism," rest on Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. Something is either right or wrong, and everyone should either do it or not do it, always. In practice, though, there are very few questions on which Americans can agree on a moral absolutes. Take almost any policy debate and thinking people are apt to become utilitarians, balancing costs and benefits and weighing trade-offs. They're apt to perceive and tolerate ambiguity, too. They might, for example, see abortion as a tragic decision, but also as a liberating and benevolent one that helps ensure that children will be well-loved and cared for. So much for bright lines.

At times, Callahan seems to recognize this dilemma, but he doesn't face it head on. In a reproachful tone, he blames liberals for not having moral absolutes. After stating that comprehensive sex education is superior to abstinence-only programs at delaying teenage sex and reducing pregnancy and disease, he says disdainfully, "Abstinence crusaders are rolling over Planned Parenthood types who have social science on their side but offer no moral bottom line." Yet most of Callahan's own proposals entail moral jawboning about personal responsibility combined with lots of individual freedom, more social spending, and punishment only for transgression of the law. There are (thank heavens) few moral bottom lines in this book.

Instead, Callahan articulates what he thinks are mainstream moral beliefs, such as marriage is a good thing, "abortion is bad," people should honor family ties, crimes should be punished no matter who commits them, the poor and vulnerable should be helped, people should be able to earn personal freedom through hard work, and everyone should make some sacrifice or service to a "common higher purpose." Then, under the rubric of supporting these moral values, he pulls some standard remedies from the liberal medicine cabinet. For example, he's big on social insurance but packages it as something that "will make it easier for people to pursue personal freedom through entrepreneurial risk-taking." To address sexuality and family preservation, he proposes better sex education and health insurance for contraceptives; economic supports for working parents; marriage education and responsible fatherhood initiatives; and better regulation of corporate media. The question in my mind is whether packaging moderate remedies in moral language can satisfy the primitive hunger for moral bottom lines.

Callahan's third insight is the most hard-hitting. The essence of morality is considering others' interests as well as one's own, but moralists on the right "refuse to confront the force that increasingly fans an extreme ethos of self-interest, namely our free-market economy." Early in the book Callahan warns, "We ride the tiger of selfishness. Untamed, it will eat everything we care about." In chapters on sex, family, media, crime and punishment, work, poverty, and patriotism, he deftly outlines how the unbridled pursuit of self-interest in a market economy overwhelms concern for others and the subsidiary moral values that people say they care so much about. Take the media. Many people are revolted by the sex and violence of popular culture and frightened for their children, but sex and violence draw viewers (ironically, especially young adults of parenting age), and large audiences draw ad revenue, which feeds the commercial bottom line.

Take corporate crime. The Food and Drug Administration fails to stop pharmaceutical companies from peddling harmful drugs. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration looks the other way while employers allow their workers to be killed in unsafe workplaces. Callahan sees the extreme self-interest at work here but thinks it can be controlled by "better enforcement of existing laws that protect the safety, health, and finances of Americans." Not bloody likely. That tiger now owns the FDA and OSHA and virtually writes their regulatory standards.

If Callahan has failed to offer convincing methods of taming the capitalist tiger of selfishness, he has faced it, and that in itself is an act of courage for anyone who hopes to be heard in American political debate. He may not have found a moral center, either, but he has pointed us toward something far more important, a moral core composed of concern for others. This is how liberals can call upon people to be good.

Deborah Stone's next book on altruism and public life will be published by Nation Books in late 2007.