Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Core Democratic Value: Individual Freedom

In today's Times Magazine (registration required), reporter Matt Bai offers a critique from a supposedly friendly perspective of the Democratic position on social values--yet another spasm of hand-wringing over the party's failure to connect with heartland voters on an emotional level. I share the concern and agree that we need to do a much better job of expressing our views on moral issues clearly and powerfully. Unfortunately, Bai's arguments suggest that Bai has largely swallowed Republican framing of the debates and therefore has little of value to offer Democrats as they search for answers.

For example, Bai notes that the Republicans damaged themselves in the eyes of most Americans by their obvious over-reaching and posturing in the Terri Schiavo case--but then adds, "Even in defeat, Republicans emerged as 'the party of life.'" Which makes Democrats what? The "party of death," a phrase Bai attributes to "one leading Democratic operative." This is, of course, exactly the spin the Republicans have been trying to push, which the polls tell us the vast majority of people have rejected. But Bai apparently accepts it.

He then tries to analyze the roots of what he sees as the Democratic "hypocrisy" on social issues. According to Bai, its source is the conflict between the party's twin allegiances to the Civil Rights movement and the "antiwar counterculture" (Bai's phrase) of the 1960s. Bai says that whereas the civil rights movement centered on "legislating and codifying morality" (i.e. by urging federal action against racial segregation), the counterculture "was all about radical individualism." The result is that today's Democrats are caught in hopelessly contradictory positions:

Where their own communities are concerned, Democrats reflexively resist any notion of government as a moral umpire; they don't want some politician dressing up their kids in school uniforms or deciding which video game they should be allowed to play. . . . And yet when it comes to the more rural and religious communities where other voters live, Democrats tend to view government, conveniently, through the activist prism of civil rights. Legislation limiting gun ownership or legal decisions restricting school prayer seem eminently reasonable, because they reflect urban and secular values that, to most Democrats, constitute an obvious moral imperative.

All of this strikes me as remarkably wrong-headed. The Democratic positions Bai cites are self-contradictory only if you view them through the distorted prism of conservative spin. It's true that Democrats (like most traditional conservatives, libertarians, and the majority of Americans) recoil from the notion of government as "moral umpire." But support for gun control laws and opposition to school prayer are completely consistent with that.

Take school prayer first. Bai's rhetoric implies that "legal decisions restricting school prayer" somehow involve "government" restricting the moral choices of citizens. He obfuscates the fact that prayer in public schools--the only kind of school prayer ever affected by court decisions--is precisely an act of moral imposition on citizens by a government agency (i.e., the public school system itself). The whole point of separating church and state is to keep the state from imposing religious beliefs or practices on American citizens--in other words, to prevent government from becoming a "moral umpire." No inconsistency there.

Gun control laws are a slightly more subtle example. Yes, gun laws involve some degree of government control over individual action. But the mainstream Democratic position on gun control has never involved "moral umpiring." Liberals want laws that require registration of guns, limits on gun sales to convicted criminals, and restrictions on the ownership of dangerous weapons whose only purpose is to kill human beings (as opposed to sport, hunting, target practice and the like) not because we consider guns or gun-owners "bad" but for the same reason we regulate ownership of cars: because they are powerful machines that need to be handled with extreme care to save innocent lives.

For generations it has been against the law to own a car that's unregistered or uninsured, and people who are under age or blind or drunk are forbidden to get behind the wheel. Is this "moral umpiring" by government or just practical, pragmatic regulation?

The fact is that Democratic positions on these and other "moral values" issues, including abortion, gay rights, the right to die, draconian drug laws, etc. etc. have a consistent, connecting thread: the desire to expand the realm of individual freedom.

Democrats support civil rights because an individual should have the freedom to go to school or apply for a job or buy a house regardless of race, religion, or ethnic background. It's not a matter of "moral umpiring"--no law says you have to like people of different races or believe in "brotherhood." Be a bigot if you like, even express your bigotry in words. But you can't express it through actions that limit my freedom.

In the same way, Democrats support gay rights because individuals should have the freedom to love whomever they choose. They support reasonable gun control laws because individuals should have the freedom to drive down the street, visit a mall, or enter a public building without being assaulted by someone carrying a concealed weapon. They support separation of church and state because individuals should have the freedom to worship and believe in any way they like--or not at all--unconstrained by government.

Inconsistent? Self-contradictory? Only by the tortured logic of "conservatives" who define "moral values" as meaning "freedom for those who agree with me."
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