11 November 2016

Post Mortem: A Moral Morass

In my last post, Aftermath, I mentioned what I take to be the two distinct ethical philosophies motivating the two Presidential candidates. I had explored these views in a bit more depth in my post-Convention six-part essay Frameworks, if you're interested. In this post, instead of looking at how the candidates' strategies, tactics, and messages sought to implement their philosophies, I want to look at the intended audiences of those messages—the targets, the voters. How did those philosophies appeal to them? Why did they vote the way the did?

I want to warn you ahead of time, this is an uncomfortable post to write, and I suspect it will be uncomfortable in places to read. It deals with what is a divisive and often taboo subject, to wit: morality.

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election saw an electorate divided almost precisely in half. Out of some 120 million votes cast, Hillary Clinton received around 230,000 more votes than Donald Trump—or 47.7% to 47.5% (as of this writing). Trump, of course, won the presidency due to the quirks of the way votes are apportioned by state in the Electoral College. I suggest that this split represents two very distinct views of morality and is, in effect, a war for the very soul of America.

Clinton's campaign sought to mobilize a broad and diverse and inclusive coalition of constituencies, including African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ people, feminists, millennials, and academics and urban intelligentsia, among others. Trump's campaign, by contrast, sought to energize a base of predominantly white, rural working class and otherwise disaffected voters. Before the election, it was practically a given that the former campaign approach would prevail—and, in fact, it did by a razor-thin margin that was insufficient to carry the electoral college. As I stated, however: "In retrospect, Clinton's coalition proved to be insufficiently broad and ultimately shallow, while Trump's base turned out to be unexpectedly deep and extremely motivated. Resentment and iconoclasm prevailed over progressive values and competent continuity."

An ethical philosophy seeks to explain the way people make decisions. Morality, by contrast, has to do with the way people feel about right and wrong, their judgment of things as good and bad. My view is that, among voters, the clash of two competing and, ultimately, incompatible moralities explains the split among the electorate.

The prevailing morality of Clinton's voters, I would suggest, is rights based. That is good which expands or protects or is sensitive to their vision of fundamental human rights. For example, the political and economic rights of minorities and the oppressed, or the right of a woman to control her reproductive choices, or the right to express one's bodily freedom and to self-identify, or the political right to exercise unfettered speech and assembly (within certain limits having to do with infringement of others' rights), etc. Clinton's voters, I believe, felt their view of morality was ascendant, and the last eight years under President Obama has done nothing to contradict this. Under their moral view, it is wrong or bad to oppose or limit these rights, and people who seek to do so are racist or xenophobic or homophobic or bigoted or misogynistic, for example. Make no mistake, these are terms of moral opprobrium. These are explicitly moral judgments.

This differs from what I take to be the prevailing morality of Trump's voters. In a word, their morality derives from certain traditional codes of behavior and social order. Morally, they see Clinton's voters as degenerates and baby killers. They see the moral order of things under assault. They are offended by open licentiousness in the broader culture and what they view as the heedless slaughter of the innocents. And for at least the last eight years they have felt their moral feelings have been increasingly under siege by the prevailing culture and politics. They resent the ascendancy of Clinton's constituencies and long for a time when what they view as basic moral decency prevailed. They feel hurt and insulted and seek to punish those who have held them in contempt as ignorant and bigoted. And, in a very real and larger sense, when they say they want to "Make America Great Again," they are asserting their own need to retreat to a moral "safe space."

Where Clinton voters woke up on November 9 wondering how they were going to explain to their children that the country elected a racist and sexist bigot as president, Trump's voters have been despairing about how to explain to their own children that a man who leads a sexually perverse lifestyle is the head of the U.S. Army or that a Reality TV star and former Olympic decathlon Gold Medalist considers himself to be a woman or that the Planned Parenthood in their neighborhood gets away with the brutal, heartless murder of precious human lives. Where Clinton's voters see progress being made with respect to the expansion of a diverse set of human rights, Trump's voters see an America sliding into the sort of decadence that doomed the Roman Empire. The left views the right as intolerant; the right sees the left as invasive.

Such moral feelings are not easily assuaged—on either side—precisely because they are feelings. What's more, what one side views as a moral issue may not be shared by the other side. For example, the issue with respect to abortion has been joined: women's right to bodily self-control vs. infanticide. This moral divide seems unbridgeable. Likewise, the issues surrounding LGBTQ people: the rights to self-identify and to love whomever one chooses vs. degeneracy and perversity.

Other issues are not so cleanly defined—at least in the moral realm. For example, where Clinton's constituents may see their opponents as racists, many of Trump's voters feel unfairly libeled. Certainly, the racist right identifies with Trump's brand of politics, but not all of his supporters feel they should be lumped in with the Klan and its allies. Many know and work and socialize with people of color and other ethnicities on a regular basis. Many others live in pockets where, in their day to day lives, they simply do not encounter such difference. Racist motives do not always come into play for many of them. Similarly, much of the anti-immigrant stance of the Trump constituency, while condemned as racist and xenophobic by Clinton's voters, might better be viewed as economically motivated; though, without question, there are necessarily racist and xenophobic elements in the mix.

These differences in how and which issues are joined can be traced back to something I argued in Frameworks and Aftermath. The deontological right judges actions by the intentions and motives of the actors; the consequentialist left, by contrast, looks primarily at the effects of the actions. Thus, if the effect of an anti-immigrant sentiment inequitably targets a minority group, the left rightfully in its view sees this as racist and/or xenophobic whereas the right might legitimately claim its motives were purely economic. (NB: We've seen some shenanigans in some places like North Carolina where admittedly racist voter suppression acts were cloaked in seemingly legitimate motives as a pretext. That is why courts are often called upon to look at the demographic effects of political actions to determine whether they impermissibly violate Constitutionally protected rights.)

As an aside: The moral conundrum (for me at least) of this election has to do with Donald Trump as the standard bearer of the right. He is a known philanderer, thrice-married, a womanizer; a litigious, corrupt fraud and gambling magnate; a coarse and vulgar Reality TV entertainer. Thoroughly immoral by either standard. Yet he carried the moralistic right—including evangelicals and other moral scolds—against a woman who is widely reputed to be a good Methodist. It would be easy to chalk this up to hypocrisy, but I do not think that such name-calling is a productive analysis. Rather, I surmise those on the moralistic right saw Clinton as someone who would continue the progressive assault on their heartfelt moral values that they believe has been on-going since at least the time of her husband. They believe that this progress is reversible and that America can be morally great again. And they see Donald Trump as an albeit flawed champion who can halt its spread in the culture. Whether they are deluded remains to be seen.

All that to say that moral issues are tangled and intensely felt. The moral divide I've described does not perfectly explain the 2016 election, but it does go a long way to providing some helpful context for understanding what is happening in our country. And it helps to explain why the campaigns ran the sort of messages (see Frameworks and Aftermath) they did, appealing to these divergent moral sentiments of their perceived bases of support.

As it stands, the country seems about evenly divided between two intractable moral systems, and right now one side holds all the levers of power. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to inculcate their values in the political and legal realms and, what's more, the extent to which these two incompatible moral visions can continue to peaceably coexist.


Mongo, At The Moment said...

Thoughtful post, particularly your point about the deontological Right vs. the consequentalist Left. Not as a a criticism, but in accepting that framework, where and how in spite of logic do economics influence voters' support? In the 5-6 year run-up to the 2008 Crash, times were *relatively* good across a broad spectrum of the population, including the Rust Belt (though they were hit harder than urban populations by the Crash because they'd never really recovered from the dismantling of the manufacturing sector beginning in the Reagan 80's).

Long story short -- To what degree do economics (here, the life experience of Rust Belt Trump supporters over 20 years) eclipse a moral framework in determining where a person's political sympathies lie? It seems simplistic, but when times are good, is it easier for individuals to be more tolerant, more able to accept incremental change? And when the paychecks aren't regular or are less, coupled with the stress of uncertainty, is the opposite likely to happen?

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

My lengthy comment died the old "bad request."

Maybe tomorrow.

Frank Wilhoit said...

Everything you say is correct, but you do not draw the conclusion, which is even worse.

The only salient fact is that the two camps are irreconcilable. They agree on precisely nothing and therefore cannot coexist. Once this situation has been reached, it no longer matters which side is "right", or what the putative (and axiomatically dishonest) subjects of disagreement were.

It is of historical significance, for the far future, that 100% of the blame for creating this situation rests with one side; but it is not of any practical significance for today.

Jim H. said...

Mongo: Economics is important, too. The conundrum has to do with 4.9% unemployment, rising equity and housing markets, free and, importantly, peaceful flows of goods and capital around the world, etc. Why the discontent? Teeing off on that tricky subject is for another post. I will say, I tend (at least now in drafting the thoughts) to think it has less to do with "globalism" and TPP, etc., and more to do with the advancement of technology & automation. As I pointed out in an aside in Aftermath, when driverless vehicles take all the good truck, bus, ship, train, plane-driving jobs, is that also going to be the fault of TPP? Globalism? Those are convenient scapegoats for the current Rust Belt malaise, and certainly bear some of the blame. But I think the problem is much larger. And I can't answer the question as to whether healthy economy can paper over these deep moral divides.

Thunder: I look forward to your second attempt--as always!

Frank Wilhoit: Welcome to WoW! You on Twitter? You've totally nailed it. This divide is deep. If there is some sort of political schism, it will fuel the partisans because of its emotional content. It scares me. I certainly have my own views, but I feel it's important to see both sides' POV's clearly. I have no idea how we coexist peaceably, esp. when the sides seem so evenly drawn. Thanks for your comment.

Ed said...

r/K Selection Theory explains the difference between the two sides.

Jim H. said...

Thanks for the comment, Ed. I have no idea what r/K Selection Theory is. Had to look it up. Appears to be a biological evolutionary model somehow applied to political situations, having to do with issues of scarcity and reproductive strategies . It certainly casts a helpful light, and I hope to address the economic issues in a subsequent post. All I sought to do here was delineate the "moral melee" as Jethro Tull sang about in "Thick as a Brick", which I believe is a significant & long-simmering one that played a role in the electorate's choices. Frameworks & Aftermath talked more about the campaign strategic approaches.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I think the issue with prior comment is the Great Gazoogle wanted me to check the "I'm not a robot" box, and I'm not used to needing to do so. Beep beep beep...

Anyways, one thing I wanted to take issue with was Landru's comment that because the polls showing HRC would win were so wrong, we can also dismiss the polls showing that Sanders performed better against Trump.

What the polls got wrong was just how unpopular HRC was, and how shallow her support. Almost 7 million fewer voters pulled the Dem lever for President than in 2012. (And that was over 3 million fewer than 2008.)

Meanwhile, it was not the case that there was some surge of support for Trump on the other side: he got fewer than either Romney or McCain.

The polls that showed Bernie Sanders outperforming Hillary in this matchup were reflecting the state of the electorate.

She was exactly the wrong candidate to run against Trump.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

And now a comment about the morality of the Clintons and their team.

Did you know Bill Clinton encouraged Donald to run, err 'take a leadership role'?

Or that HRC's allies at the DNC encouraged the press to pay extra attention to "Pied Piper" candidates like Trump?

Meanwhile, they relentlessly savaged not only the candidate who had a better chance of beating Trump, but also his supporters.

So if Trump was the danger to the country they said he was, didn't Team Clinton quite cynically putting their own narrow interests ahead of the nation's?

Mongo, At The Moment said...

It *is* a much larger problem. Even in the (relatively) Good Times before the Crash, things seemed crazy, out of balance. Now, with 2008 in recent memory, without even trying to put things into a framework I keep feeling This is out of balance, unreal; not sustainable. Principally because I feel this slow, steady breeze, a sense of motion -- a feeling of the flow of money and power all going in one direction: up the pyramid.

That's not a very quantifiable sense, but I believe a lot of people feel that, one way or the other, before they fall asleep at night.

'scuse me; gotta go prove I'm not a robot.