Obama's moral majority

President Obama has a unique opportunity to unite Americans behind him and redefine liberalism. But if he is to succeed, he must find a new political language—and broaden the moral register of the political left
February 28, 2009

At President Obama's inauguration, did we finally witness the beginning of the end of America's long and bitter culture wars? The two conservative ideologies that joined forces in the 1980s—free-market fundamentalism and the religious right—are severely weakened, while liberal ideas about the role of government, the limitations of markets and the value of international cooperation are newly ascendant. Yet, as the new leader of the victorious left, Obama has been a gracious winner. From his electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic convention to his 2009 inaugural address, he has promised to transcend the old partisan divisions and reach out to the other side.

As president, however, he'll have to be much more specific. With the Democrats firmly in control of Congress, he'll be faced with enormous pressure to prosecute a strongly liberal agenda—not only on the economy, but also on many morally controversial issues. The temptations to do so will be great; his base is expecting a lot from him, and he has a convincing electoral mandate for change. Yet if he moves firmly to the left on moral issues, he will reinvigorate conservatives and find himself as bogged down by domestic opposition as was President Clinton. This is why, although the economy may be the most pressing issue, it may ultimately be his handling of social and cultural issues that defines his presidency. Here, I offer three ideas from moral psychology that might be useful to him, and to those trying to understand him.


First idea: use all five moral senses. A scientific consensus is emerging that human moral psychology was shaped by multiple evolutionary forces and that our minds therefore detect many—sometimes conflicting—properties of social situations. The two best studied moral senses pertain to harm (including our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness (including anger at injustice). You can travel the world but you won't find a human culture that doesn't notice and care about harm and fairness.

Political conservatives in the US, Britain and many other nations value three additional sets of moral concerns. Like liberals, they care about harm and fairness, but they care more than liberals about loyalty to the in-group (which political party cares most about flags and borders?), authority (which side demands respect for parents and teachers?) and spiritual purity (which side most wants to restrict homosexuality and drug use?). It's as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning. (My research colleagues and I have not just plucked these "senses" from the air; they emerged from a review of both evolutionary and anthropological theory, and were tested in internet surveys, face-to-face interviews and even in the decoding of religious sermons.)

This hypothesis doesn't mean that liberals are wrong or defective, but it does mean that they often have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa. Liberals tend to relate most moral issues to potential harms and injustices. They therefore can't understand why anyone—including the majority of Americans—would oppose gay marriage, for example, because legalising gay marriage would hurt nobody and end an injustice. Arguments about the sanctity of marriage or the authority of tradition sound like empty words sent out to cover irrational homophobia. But the culture war is not primarily a disagreement about what's harmful or fair; it is better described as a battle between two visions of the ideal society, one that is designed to appeal to two moral senses, the other designed to appeal to five.


In America, the culture wars began in the 1960s when both of the psychological senses used by liberals were deeply offended. Nightly television reports showed the US inflicting horrific harm on Vietnamese civilians and great unfairness on its own black citizens. But when many young people adopted rhetoric that was overtly anti-American, anti-authoritarian and anti-puritanical, they triggered the three more conservative moral senses. Both sides saw their most sacred values desecrated; both came to believe that the ends justified the means in the fight against evil. As the baby boomers aged and entered electoral politics, norms of civility and co-operation (which had been unusually strong in the generation that lived through the second world war) deteriorated, along with the government's ability to function effectively.

Obama, born at the end of the baby boom, wrote in The Audacity of Hope that the bitter politics of the Clinton years seemed to be an ugly expression of the "psychodrama of the baby boom generation." As the first post-boomer president he has a unique opportunity to close the curtain on that drama, but only if he can draft a satisfying epilogue. He must reassure the 40 per cent of Americans who identify themselves as conservative, not just the 20 per cent who call themselves liberal. There are plenty of signs that he is already reaching out beyond his base, although his soaring moral rhetoric has so far been crafted primarily to appeal to the two more liberal senses of harm and fairness. The fundamental belief that makes America work, he says, is the idea that "I am my brother's keeper." Conservatives of all types reject this claim, both as history and as policy, particularly when it is the government that does the keeping.

As president, Obama should further expand his moral vocabulary and speak in ways that convey, explicitly and implicitly, that he at least understands and respects the most sacred moral concerns of social conservatives. How can he do that without alienating his liberal supporters? He can choose more words and symbolic political actions that span all five moral octaves.


The second idea: emphasise unum, not pluribus. The motto of the US has long been e pluribus unum ("from many, one"). Americans have struggled for 230 years to create a united nation without some of the "glue" available to most countries, such as small size, long history, shared ethnicity and an obsession with the football World Cup. It is an enormous challenge, and liberals are often seen to be part of the problem, not the solution. Liberals are perceived to favour high levels of immigration while refusing to encourage assimilation or to say that English is the national language; they seem more devoted to celebrating diversity than celebrating America; and they appear to lack awe for sacred symbols like the flag and the founding fathers. Liberals, generally speaking, care more about pluribus than unum; the opposite is true of social conservatives. Both sides are expressing valid moral concerns; both sides are necessary for the health of the nation. Yet the president must be the defender in chief of unum. He embodies the nation, which is an emergent entity: a kind of social super-organism that is much more than the sum of its people.

One cannot be a great political or religious leader without appealing to some degree to the additional three moral senses of in-group, authority and purity, and this presents a special challenge to American liberals who are often unwilling or unable to use them. Obama could, for example, make more use of the in-group sense by speaking more often about the nation and its symbols, not just about the American people (liberals like people more than nations). He may be a transnationalist at heart, happy to cede some sovereignty to international bodies, but he had better not let that show in his first year. He should stop the "citizen of the world" language now that he is the leader of a very patriotic nation.

Being African-American has not, as many feared, weakened Obama's position, but has given him a peculiar advantage. As the first African-American president, he is supremely well-positioned to transcend the liberal obsession with diversity. Obama said in an interview in May that he thought his daughters should be treated by college admissions officers like any other advantaged children, whereas poor white children who worked hard and overcame the odds deserve some extra points. Shifting affirmative action policies from race to class would be a popular and unity-enhancing move. Formulaic enforcement of racial diversity has long been a source of anger toward liberals and resentment toward the beneficiaries of affirmative action (particularly among the working-class whites who strongly preferred Hillary Clinton to Obama).

Conversely, research in social psychology shows that one of the best ways to increase racial tolerance is to promote a common in-group identity, and this can be done easily by presidential rhetoric. Thirty states and many cities have already passed laws declaring English their official language. Obama could head off these often xenophobic initiatives by talking about the importance of the English language, and the value of encouraging immigrants to learn English. If liberals can acknowledge the obvious facts that multilingual nations often split along linguistic lines and that learning English would benefit most immigrants, government can start using liberal carrots (such as free language classes) rather than conservative sticks (such as bans on speaking other languages by government employees).

Obama should talk more often about the essential function of legitimate authority, so often praised by conservatives: the maintenance of order, which requires the punishment of cheaters. The economic crisis, produced in part by a culture of rule-evasion on Wall Street, offers a chance for Obama to develop his own persona as a tough-but-fair disciplinarian, not just a nurturer-in-chief and keeper-of-brothers.

The increase in crime that is likely to accompany the economic downturn will present him with a harder challenge. Will his administration show more compassion to the criminals, or support for the police and local authorities? Will Obama blame the higher crime rates of young African American males on racism, or will he return to one of his few clear uses of authority as a moral sense in his campaign—his exhortations for black parents, particularly fathers, to take more responsibility for their children's welfare and behaviour? As he did in his masterful Philadelphia speech in March 2008 on race, Obama should (and is likely to) acknowledge and integrate all sides of this complex and volatile issue.

Purity, the final moral sense, is the hardest one for secular liberals to understand, but the psychology of purity isn't necessarily about God; it's the idea, deeply felt by most people, that human beings have a nobler, more spiritual self as well as a baser, more carnal self. It's the idea that life—both private and communal—should have some higher purpose than the maximisation of pleasure, profit, and efficiency. Obama could make greater use of this sense by decrying the degradation and materialism that have characterised so much of American culture. Once again, the economic crisis offers him an opportunity. He has already shown a facility with religious metaphors and narratives; because of his connection to African-American culture he might find it easier than most white liberals to invoke quasi-religious narratives of fall and redemption that would resonate with Christian conservatives. Obama also has a chance to break the association, forged in the 1960s and strengthened by Bill Clinton, that liberal equals libertine. He can't impose moralistic and unconstitutional restrictions on art, movies, commerce, and speech, but he can speak (as he already has done) as a concerned father and as a Christian about the ugliness and crassness of pop culture. He can also enact measures to help parents who want to protect their children from exposure to obscenity, violence, and advertising.

In these ways, Obama can convey to conservatives that, unlike many liberal politicians, he "gets it." He understands that the presidency is a sacred trust which requires him to guard the identity, order and moral health of the nation. If he can reassure conservatives that he accepts this duty, even as he pursues a generally progressive legislative agenda, he will reduce the odds of a backlash and produce a lasting realignment of the electoral landscape.


Third idea: be magnanimous. Here, Obama can draw lessons from one of the most revered figures in American history: Abraham Lincoln. The parallels between Obama and Lincoln are often noted: both were state senators from Illinois who ascended to the presidency in part because of their oratorical ability, and who took charge of a deeply divided nation on the brink of an epic crisis. The most important parallels, however, may concern not the beginning of Lincoln's presidency, but the end. In the winter of 1864-65, as it became clear that the north would soon win the war, Lincoln began laying the groundwork for the nation's reconstruction. In his second inaugural address, in words now etched in stone on his memorial, he said: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

Lincoln invoked the metaphor of the nation as one human body (unum) that had suffered grievous wounds. He knew that the north would soon be able to dictate terms to the south, but he chose terms that were generous, not punitive. In the electoral campaign of 1864, he dropped his vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, in order to add a southern Democrat, Andrew Johnson. Presumably he did this to acknowledge the place of southern Democrats and even former slave owners in a restored union.

Lincoln's generosity may have stemmed from many motives, but they had a good psychological warrant: magnanimous gestures trigger feelings of moral elevation; those feelings help people overcome divisions and open their hearts to new, more noble possibilities. Recent research that I conducted with Jennifer Silvers of Columbia University demonstrates that witnessing acts of moral beauty has physiological as well as psychological effects: nursing mothers who watched a morally elevating video clip were more likely to leak milk into a nursing pad and to nurse their babies than mothers who saw an amusing but uninspiring video clip. This suggests the operation of the hormone oxytocin, which has recently been shown to increase interpersonal trust, even toward strangers.

Obama's oratory has thrilled and elevated those who are favourably disposed to his message and his politics, but it has left many conservatives cold and wary. He can elevate those who don't share his politics by following Lincoln's example. He can be magnanimous in victory by appointing members of the other side to important positions (as he did in retaining Bush's secretary of defence Robert Gates, and in asking conservative pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration). He can also find ways to praise the virtues of the other side, even while developing a comprehensive moral argument against it. Obama took a step in this direction last January when he offered ambiguous praise of Ronald Reagan as a "transformative political figure," but he quickly denied that he had intended his comments as praise when he was criticised by his competitors for the Democratic nomination. He should try again now, offering occasional praise of, or quotations from, revered conservative figures from Edmund Burke to William F Buckley. As a master of nuance, Obama can surely model for the public an appreciation of the long and constructive debate between liberalism and conservatism, even as he develops and defends a new form of liberalism. Moral arguments rarely change minds by sheer force of logic; rather, persuasion depends heavily on emotion, and Obama must be able to trigger positive emotions in those he hopes to win over.

One of Obama's greatest culture-war challenges will be the issue of investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by members of the Bush administration, particularly those related to the authorisation of torture and warrantless wiretapping. The fully magnanimous response—forgive and forget in the name of national unity—would provoke justifiable outrage on the left and would undercut Obama's oft-stated respect for the rule of law. But rather than launching a criminal investigation or appointing a special prosecutor, he could set up a bipartisan commission to undertake a preliminary investigation and make proposals to Congress about whether and how to hold people responsible—as well as ways to offer restitution to those who were illegally harmed. Such a commission could deliver justice while distancing the new president from its proceedings, and buying him enough time to gain the trust of most of the country before any criminal proceedings began.

Lincoln's assassination brought an end to magnanimous reconstruction, leaving in its place a long-running and ultimately tragic battle between highly partisan Republicans and Democrats. They were unable to find common ground, and a dozen years later, the Republicans abandoned their hopes for protecting African Americans. While the formal system of slavery had come to an end, the notorious Black Codes and Jim Crow system that followed bound Americans to racial inequity for another century.

The divided country that Obama must reconstruct is not in such dire shape as the one that confronted Lincoln. But the threats facing the larger world are more severe, and the new president will only succeed by reaching out to enemies as well as friends. This is not a case for a return to tentative Clintonite centrism: Obama can and should make radical changes in controversial areas like environmental policy and healthcare. But he will only be able to do so if he takes most of his country with him. By broadening his moral vocabulary, emphasising unum rather than pluribus, and drawing on the magnanimity that already seems to be part of his character, he can unite and lead America, even as he reinvents liberalism.

This research on moral foundations was done with colleagues Peter Ditto, Jesse Graham, Ravi Iyer, Sena Koleva and Brian Nosek. It draws on ideas from the anthropologist Richard Shweder and the historian Mark Shulman. You can find your own scores on the five "moral foundations" at www.yourmorals.org