Roy Moore, Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Alabama, is a virulently anti-gay would-be theocrat with an unstable mind and a violent bent. Now it turns out he’s allegedly a pedophile, too.
So why has Alabama’s Democratic Senate nominee, Doug Jones, had so much trouble taking Moore’s moral failings head on? Shouldn’t this be a softball for Jones?
Right after the primary in September, a senior Jones strategist said the campaign would let Moore’s history of anti-gay bigotry “speak for itself.” In the hours after news broke in November about Moore’s allegedly pedophiliac past, the Jones campaign sent out multiple emails to supporters in the candidate’s name — all of which stuck to the basic themes of his race, not even mentioning the news about Moore.
This type of refusal to stand up for what’s right when trying to appeal to a conservative electorate is a major strategic blunder for Jones. It may or may not cost him the victory in this case, but it has certainly been a common political brand problem for Democrats across the country over the years.
There is a solution for Democrats that would help them compete and win in the South and other conservative areas. It’s not even that hard — once you understand the problem.
Democratic Reluctance to Talk Morals to Conservatives: The Problem
According to Moral Foundations Theory, human morals break down into five main pillars or “foundations”: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.
Conservatives tend to prioritize all of five moral foundations more or less equally. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to disproportionately prioritize the care and fairness foundations.
This means that for a liberal, taking a moral stand against something is typically a matter of showing it to be harmful or unfair. To convince fellow liberals, that appeal to care and/or fairness is often more than enough.
But when a liberal tries to convince conservatives about an important moral point by relying on care and fairness, the appeal often falls flat. The liberal assumes this means the job can’t be done. If there’s no way for a liberal to appeal to conservatives morally, then in order to win their votes, the liberal’s only option is to appeal to conservatives transactionally.
And, indeed, that is the stated goal of the Jones campaign, per the full quote from the senior adviser referenced above: “We’ll let Moore speak for himself. Doug Jones is going to be talking about jobs, health care, moving the country forward and uniting people, not dividing them.”
While this transactional strategy may have worked at times in the 20th century, it has almost never worked in the 21st. The old Tip O’Neil aphorism that all politics is local has been turned on its head. Today, there is a mountain of anecdotal and scholarly evidence to indicate that transactional decision-making is all but dead.
Leveraging Conservative Moral Foundations for Liberals: The Solution
What if, instead of talking to conservatives using liberal moral foundations or valueless transactional appeals, liberals talked to conservatives using conservative moral foundations?
Speaking to conservative moral foundations is what the Jones campaign — and anyone else who wants to defend safety net benefits in the South or union membership in a rural area or generally succeed as a liberal in a not-so-liberal context — must do.
For a stirring example of how to use a conservative moral framework to defend a typically liberal value (in this case diversity), re-watch that video of Air Force Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria calling out discriminatory behavior at the Air Force Academy that got some viral play online right around the time Moore received his party’s nomination.
Here’s why the refrain from the video, “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out,” should be powerful to a conservative:
- It’s not just that the discriminatory behavior is harmful. It’s that the person who commits it can’t control himself. He can’t support the norms and expectations of the group, which means he’s showing betrayal instead of loyalty.
- Dignity and respect are by definition sanctified traits. Failing to exhibit these traits means degrading the group.
- If you need to get out when you degrade and betray, that means the group has authority over the individual. When you subvert and betray the group, you are therefore subverting authority.
Loyalty, sanctity, and authority. These foundations together constitute what we call honor. Prominent psychologists will tell you that the South has what amounts to an honor culture. Arlie Hochschild’s recent sociological examination of Louisiana tea partiers shows clearly how a sense of honor drives conservative opposition to various government interventions. The Southerners I know in my own life emphasize how important and prized politeness is where they come from. And after all, what is politeness but the ability to treat total strangers — and even people you despise — honorably? That is, with dignity and respect?
Democrats like Doug Jones can and must stake out moral ground when conservatives cede it, even when operating in conservative areas of the country. Staking out this moral ground may not be as easy as calling on the traditional liberal values of care and fairness, but Jones in particular has already shown a brave commitment to his core values (pro-reproductive rights, pro-stopping climate change) in a situation where that’s far from easy. And the potential rewards — both moral and electoral, both for Jones and for liberals around the country — more than justify the effort.
Instead of witnessing his opponent’s moral meltdown and plodding along talking about health care and schools and other transactional concerns, what if Jones addressed the meltdown head on? He could emphasize how Moore’s alleged pedophilia is a personal failing that betrays and degrades the people of Alabama, that it delegitimizes Moore’s claim to authority on behalf of the group.
Making a statement like that wouldn’t turn every Alabama Republican into a Democrat. But it would do immeasurably more to build up Jones’ — and Democrats’ — political brand than ignoring Moore’s moral meltdown. And since politics isn’t local anymore, building a political brand is the best way for Democrats to win more races in conservative areas like the South. They must embrace it.
Update, 11/14: The Jones Campaign Releases an Ad
In a new ad released today, the Jones campaign goes directly after Moore:
This ad will probably help the Jones campaign. According to persuasion theory, it’s what you’d call an “off ramp.” That is, something that gives Republicans who’d like to stop supporting Roy Moore an easy way to justify it to themselves. See, other Republicans are already doing it!
But while the ad does go directly after Moore on authority (“removed from office twice”) and sanctity (“don’t decency and integrity matter”) grounds, it only references the allegations obliquely. And it puts its message into the mouths of Republican voters, rather than having Jones speak on his own behalf. That likely undermines the full brand benefit the campaign could get from Jones himself taking the moral stand.