Why the Republican Party Has Lost Its Mind: Moral Superiority

By YeOldeScribe ~ July 14th, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

The Republican fascination with appealing to morals is nothing new. The party was founded in the 1850’s opposed to slavery, alcoholism and polygamy, among other things. Churches were used extensively by the party in its infancy to get the word out about the newly-formed political organization, and used churches as a social networking site (because Facebook didn’t really exist yet). The churches told people that it was their duty to purge sin from society, and they saw the Ripon, WI-based party as a way to do it. This practice of ‘moralism’ has waxed and waned over the years since the party’s birth as the culture has dictated. At times, moralism has helped the party (think post-9/11) and at times it has nearly destroyed it (think prohibition).

Did you know there was actually a Moral Majority political organization? The Republicans consistently call themselves a part of the “moral majority”, but in the ’80’s it was an actual group. Led by Jerry Falwell (of course), the Moral Majority actively campaigned for the advancement of Christian ideals in politics. They broke away from the “Religious Right” (which also used to be it’s own organization) because it wasn’t Christian enough. The group lasted only 11 years. We now use the terms moral majority and Christian right as general terms for religious folk who tend to vote conservative, but it’s important to note their history.

It’s no secret that Republicans also use moralism not just to push their political philosophy; they also use it simply as a tool to get votes. This was exploited heavily in 1994, 2002,  2004 and 2010, where Republicans achieved huge gains largely from convincing their base that they were the moral leaders of the nation. In 2004 especially, President George W. Bush won his re-election because over 80% of his supporters voted for him based on moral or social issues. That’s a huge tool that Republicans have manipulated many times.

To us, it seems strange that a party would campaign on the basis that they’re morally right. After all, if they were, don’t you think they wouldn’t brag about it? We seem to remember a passage in the Bible talking about exactly that. It’s Matthew 6:1 – “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

See, if the Christian right can quote the Bible to defend themselves, we think that we can use it to prove them wrong.

But this is besides the point – and it actually feeds into the moral majority’s position: the idea that one side is right and one side is wrong. One of the first things any political scientist should learn is that in politics, there are no absolutes. No one party is evil, no one party is always right and no one party is always wrong. (And yes, we’re well aware that the statement ‘there are no absolutes’ is an absolute. Congrats, you got us…) It’s easy to get into that mindset though. Most of the people who are card-carrying members of one party or the other won’t even consider what the other has to say. Won’t even listen; won’t even give them a fair shake. Their minds are closed off to everything that comes from the other side. If you’re a blue-blooded Democrat, nothing the Republican party comes up with is right, and vice versa.

The huge problem in politics (which seems to just now be manifesting itself) is that polarity wins elections. Nobody likes a moderate. Sure, people say they do, but election results speak otherwise – and if there’s one thing that any politician cares about more than life itself, it’s election results.Candidates that are 100% to the left or 100% to the right tend to do better than those in the middle – at least for congressional elections. Oddly enough, moderation seems to occur most often in the highest political office – the Presidency. Three of the last four presidents (George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Obama) are all fairly moderate. But we’re seeing why that’s a bad idea even this week – no matter how much power the President has, if his congress is as polarized as today’s is, there’s no way he’ll get anything done.

But why is any of this such a bad idea? What’s the problem with moralism and moral anger? For that, we turn to a prominent psychiatric social worker who refereed us to an excellent book: Letting Go of Anger by Ron & Pat Potter-Efron. (The ‘Potter’ reference on the day HP 7 pt.2 comes out was purely coincidental, we assure you.) The book has an excellent section on moral anger in which it defines what moral anger is, shows why it’s bad news, and offers some views on dealing with it. Here’s a sampling:

“Moral anger is dangerous because it combines anger with moral certainty. The morally angry person thinks, ‘I am mad at you. I am better than you. Therefore, I can attack you and I will destroy you. When you wrap yourself in the warm robe of moral superiority, you think everything you do is morally correct. You start to think that God is on your side. You think that you are good, pure, holy and proud. Others are bad, evil, sinful and despicable. That’s how you rationalize attacking them, even destroying them. You hurt others but you feel justified. You attack others without guilt because they are bad… People with this anger style use their values like clubs. They beat others down with them… Moral anger is as much about power and control as any other type of anger… That’s because they think too rigidly. Their view is right. The other is wrong. There can be no compromise.”

The emphasis is added, and for good reason. Almost word-for-word, there’s two recent examples of that type of anger manifesting itself in politics. The first comes from Wisconsin, from State Supreme Court Justice David Prosser. Remember what Prosser said to Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson – right after he called her a bitch? He said, ” I will destroy you!” The parallelism isn’t coincidental here – people who believe they are morally right see those that aren’t ‘with them’ as the enemy, and enemies are meant to be destroyed (see: Crusades). Therefore, anyone who is hurt or even killed in the name of doing the morally right thing is expendable (see: Iraq war and Prosser choking another justice because she disagreed with him). The second comes from the contentious debt ceiling debate, which we’re really looking forward to covering later. But the Republicans have consistently said that there will be no compromise on taxes. In fact, Ron Paul recently started running commercials saying exactly that: no compromise. Ironically enough, if you read the link, the reporter includes the following sentence in his description of Paul’s commercials:

“Our hero, of course, is Paul, the embodiment of moral conviction.”

So now that we’ve shown you the damage that moral anger causes, how do we overcome it? Unfortunately, Potter and Potter offer us very little help there. According to our authors, moral anger has to be resolved from within. The person harboring the moral anger has to learn that this behavior is not rational and unacceptable. They have to realize that such thoughts are destructive and that “certainly more people have died as a result of moral anger than all the other kinds of anger combined.” They have to understand that by using moral anger as a justification for their actions, they join the ranks of religious fanatics like the early Catholic church (which ordered the crusades) or Al-Qaeda (which ordered the 9/11 attacks). More than anything, they have to wake up to the fact that their behavior is reprehensible and just plain wrong.

Republicans who wish to bring the party back into moderate’s good graces would be wise to abandon moral superiority as an election tactic. It’s okay to campaign as a pro-life candidate, it’s not okay to paint your opponent as a pagan baby-killer who drinks goat blood. It’s okay to disagree with your opponent, it’s not okay to treat him or her as if they aren’t even human, deserving of respect and fair treatment. It’s okay to think you’re right, it’s not okay to know you’re right and that your opponent is wrong simply because they don’t agree with you. It’s okay to be Christian, it’s not okay to believe God is on your side.

Ironically enough, those who use moral superiority and moral anger are some of the people who are most likely to commit morally reprehensible acts. Some of the largest genocides in human history (the crusades, the Jewish extermination, terrorist attacks) are done by people who ‘know’ that what they’re doing is right and that God smiles upon what they’re doing. They don’t even have to ask for forgiveness for taking lives because in their mind, what they’re doing is pleasing to God, not disgusting to Him. Whatever God you choose to worship, it’s important to remember that just because you believe it doesn’t make it right. Beliefs are just that – beliefs. We all have our own, and they should all be respected equally.

Anything else is moral rightness, which quickly leads us down a slippery slope to moral anger and moral absolutism – which, as we’ve demonstrated, aren’t good things.

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