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An essay donated by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys

Have the Democrats Lost Their Soul?

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During 2018-APR, Jana Riess wrote an article in the Religion News Service titled: "4 reasons Republicans should be hella [sic] worried, and not just because of the midterms." She cites four concerns facing that party:

  • The Republican party does well with religious voters, but Americans are becoming less religious.

  • The country is becoming more racially diverse, but Republicans are not keeping pace.

  • The only age group where Republicans have gained ground is among the elderly. For example, 90% of millennial women now lean Democratic.

  • College graduates have shifted away from the Republican party. 1

Jana Riess earlier wrote a matching column titled “How the Democratic Party lost its soul — and can regain it in the age of Trump.": 2

In her article about Republicans, she referred to a book by Jonathan Haidt “The Righteous Mind” : 3 and how he identified five core foundations of morality. I have started reading the book and I think Ms. Riess didn’t fully understand what Haidt was saying. I will address Haidt’s book when I finish reading it. Here, I want to address Ms. Riess claim that the  Democratic Party lost its soul and what she thinks they need to do to reclaim it.

Liberals, according to Ms. Riess and Haidt, score high on two of the five moral foundations  Haidt identified Care and Fairness. They score low on the next three — Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity.

My first thought was that isn’t a bad thing. I am a Liberal and I place a greater value on Fairness and Compassion (Caring) than I do on those other three things.

My second thought was that Liberals also define those three things differently than Conservatives because they view Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity through the lens of Care and Fairness.

Then I had a third thought. I am not sure a Liberal would consider Loyalty, Authority as “moral” principles. I think they might see these as “social values”. The difference being that a moral principle is about concepts of right and wrong, good and evil. “Social values” are cultural customs and are different for different social groups. They aren’t universal in that they often don’t cross cultural lines. Moral principles on the other hand are, or should be, cross-cultural.

An example is the difference between obedience to a Patriarchal Authority, Matriarchal Authority and Egalitarian Authority! As I wrote the above line I realized that is it, that is what all of this is about.

  • For the Conservative their top moral principle is Obedience. Obedience to God, to Church and Pastor, to President, and to Parent (especially the male parent)!

  • For the Liberal their top moral principle is to Care/compassion and Fairness.

For the Liberal, abandoning a cultural/social value because it is considered unfair or lacking in compassion is the right and good thing to do. For a Conservative, who I think bases their moral principles on Obedience, to abandon a cultural/social value is wrong and evil no matter what the reason for abandoning the value is. For the Conservative, their top moral value is to Obedience — to Authority, and Loyalty to that Authority and the Sanctity of that Authority. For the Liberal their top moral value is to Care/compassion and Fairness.

Then I had a fourth thought. I wonder if Mr. Haidt considered moral concepts such as Truth and Honesty? These are important to Liberals who value Care/compassion and Fairness but maybe not so important to Conservatives who place a higher value on Obedience; these folk might be willing to overlook the lack of truth and honesty of the person in Authority because their obedience to that authority. My authority -- my leader right or wrong -- is more important to them. They might think that their person in Authority maybe lying BUT he/she must have a good reason to lie. However, lying and misrepresentation of facts and reality are anathema to the Liberal because they interfere with Care/compassion and Fairness. This doesn’t mean to say that always tell the truth and nothing but the truth! When they lie or stretch the facts, it serves the purpose of furthering the cause for Care/compassion and Fairness.

And what about the moral concept of common civility, polite discourse? I wonder if Haidt addressed this issue? I will just have to read all of Haidt’s book to see if he addresses these other moral issues and makes these distinctions between moral principles and cultural/social values.

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To understand Ms. Riess' premise that Democrats have lost their soul it is important to read her article. Loyalty Ms. Riess says

“... includes values like team play, military service, patriotism and sacrifice. Liberals are more concerned with individualism and making sure the group or nation doesn’t rob the individual of rights. Conservatives, by contrast, emphasize cooperation and sacrifice for the greater good.”

That last comment bothered me. She seems to imply that Liberals are selfish and not concerned about the “greater good”. I think Liberals think that helping individuals become the best they can be is best for the “greater good”! Their top moral principle is to Care/compassion and fairness NOT to obedience.

I believe that many Trump supporters think that their unquestioning and unwavering support for the president is “for the greater good”! This is obedience. I believe that many Liberals think that what the Republicans are doing is causing great harm and no good. They see the “blind, unquestioning” obedience of the Conservative -- that appears to ignore or trivialize issues of Care/compassion and/or Fairness -- to be immoral. Two very different ideas of what constitutes “the greater good”. Liberals again, I think, view the issue through the lens of Care and Fairness. Conservatives view the issue through the lens of Obedience to Authority, and Loyalty to and Sanctity of that Authority.

In my own experience I have noticed a great difference between Conservative concepts and Liberal concepts of common words and terms. One example is “team play”. For the Conservative, it means doing what you are told to do, filling the role assigned to you by someone else ii the person in Authority -- without question or hesitation. This is cooperation as Ms. Riess pointed out above.  This is about Obedience as I see it. I think Conservatives see this as bringing about the “greater good”?

For the Liberal “team play” is about collaboration. It is about each person taking on the job that suits their skills and abilities, and will best help the group accomplish its goals. Decision making is shared (not top down, authoritarian), AND it is never about winning no matter what the cost!

These are two very different ways of viewing “team play”! One we see with our current governor in Illinois. His idea of teamwork from my observation and of “working with the other side” is that he tells them what he wants and they do it. This, he sees as is cooperation/Obedience.

The Democratic opposition has a different idea of what it means to work with the other side! They believe in the give and take of ideas, and compromise to find a solution that all can agree with. This is collaboration.

The governor complains the Dems won’t work with him and the Dems complain he hasn’t reached out to them. I think the same issues are at work in the federal House, Senate, and White House. No wonder nothing gets done!

Loyalty for the Conservative is “my country, my church, my pastor, my religion right or wrong.” This is obedience. The Liberal says NO, “my country, church, pastor, religion can do wrong and need to be held accountable for their wrong doing.”  This is viewing Loyalty through the lens of Care and Fairness.

Loyalty is to the ideals their country, church, religion claim to stand for -- NOT (obedience) to the current person in authority. This is well shown by the late Senator John McCain (a Conservative Republican). He once said that his Loyalty was to the Office of the Presidency, NOT to the man currently occupying the office. This is an abstract concept, Loyalty to an ideal, and Conservatives I have pointed out in many other essays on this website often have a difficult time grasping abstract, esoteric, metaphysical, subjective expressions.

A critic (Liberal and/or Conservative) might comment here that Conservatives believe in God — an abstract, esoteric, metaphysical, subjective expression. I point out that the God they believe in is a concrete idea, their God is Matter not Spirit, a physical and historical reality NOT an abstract or esoteric or subjective expression of an idea or ideal. Or the “spirit”, the essence of an idea that lies within an individual.

This also points out that when we make generalizations about groups—Liberals and Conservatives in this case — there will always be exceptions to the rule! AND that is a very good thing. We may not be as divided as some of the preachers and politicians insist that we are.

I had been reading Stephen Asma’s book “Why We Need Religion 4 and I had just reached a page that also addressed this idea of Loyalty. Talk about a coincidence! On page 180 in a section on Fear and Fighting he says:

“Fear, religion scholar Robert Fuller explains, not only mobilizes us to defend physical territory but also mobilizes us to defend our cultural territory. Such defense invariably requires heightened loyalty and conformity on the part of the threatened group.”

Again this is talking about cooperation/obedience not collaboration.

I would remind people it is obedience to a leader/Authority, the next of the three moral values that Liberals don’t score highly on. I just pointed out above that for the Liberal the obedience is to the ideal NOT to a person (or an institution—church, corporation) currently holding the position of Authority. And that obedience to a leader/Authority is NOT one of their moral principles, it is a cultural/social value.

The last item on the moral values list is Sanctity. Again I think Liberals and Conservatives have very different ideas of what this word means. Ms. Riess says that Haidt defines Sanctity as a concern for social purity and that some things are just sacred. AND I am guessing here, since they are sacred they can’t be challenged/questioned or changed. This is again about Obedience.

A look at a dictionary definition of sacred points out some interesting differences in definitions. The first two meanings offered in my old Thorndike/Barnhardt “High School Dictionary” says:

  • 1. Belonging to or dedicated to God or a god: holy.

  • 2. Connected with religion; religions.

The final definition is:

  • 3. worthy of reverence.

Which definition do you think the Liberal would use? Which definition/s do you think the Conservative would refer to?

I think the Liberal would apply the same concept to Authority, and to Loyalty, someone has to be worthy of the position and/or honor, they have to earn it. AND just as importantly they have to show with their day to day words and actions they are worthy of keeping the position.

I think Conservatives and Liberals demonstrate that they have very different concepts of moral principles and what are cultural/social values:

  • For the Conservative their top moral principle is to Obedience.

  • For the Liberal their top moral principle is to Care/compassion and Fairness.

Do Liberals need to change their principles/values to win this next election as Ms. Riess suggests? Absolutely NOT. I believe that they need to become better explainers, letting people know what their principles/values are and how they differ from their opponent. Also, they need to become more comfortable with using moral language.

Have Democrats lost their soul? Absolutely NOT. They just have to become better explainers, letting people know what it is that they value the most, and what they think it takes to build a healthy, happy and productive nation that works for all of us — the “Greater Good”-- not just the good of the few.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Jana Riess, "4 reasons Republicans should be hella worried, and not just because of the midterms," "Religious News Service, 2018-APR-11, at:
  2. Jana Riess, "How the Democratic Party lost its soul—and can regain it in the age of Trump, "Religious News Service, 2018-SEP-10, at:
  3. book cover Jonathan Haidt, "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion," Vintage (2012). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  4. book cover Stephen T Asma, "Why We Need Religion," Page 189, Oxford University Press (2018). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

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Originally posted: 2018-OCT-12
Updated: 2018-NOV-18
Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys
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