Hillary Clinton, who has been in politics all her adult life, seems to have learned something from Michelle Obama, who has never run for public office. Clinton gave three masterful answers in the debate Wednesday night that were tonally different from her normal clichés.
They were about Donald Trump’s alleged assaults on women, his refusal to respect the democratic process and the contrast between his years of “Celebrity Apprentice” experience and her own governing experience. Clinton’s answers were given in a slow and understated manner, but they were marked by moral passion, clarity and quiet contempt.
They were not spoken from the point of view of a politician. They were spoken from the point of view of a parent, which is the point of view Michelle Obama frequently uses. The politician asks: What can I offer to win votes? The parent asks: What world are my children going out into when they leave the house?
The politician is focused on individual interest, but the parent is interested in the shared social, economic and moral environment.
That turns out to be a useful frame for this ugly year. It’s becoming ever clearer that the nation’s moral capital is being decimated, and the urgent challenge is to name that decimation and reverse it.
Moral capital is the set of shared habits, norms, institutions and values that make common life possible. Left to our own, we human beings have an impressive capacity for selfishness. Unadorned, the struggle for power has a tendency to become barbaric. So people in decent societies agree on a million informal restraints – codes of politeness, humility and mutual respect that girdle selfishness and steer us toward reconciliation.
This year Trump is dismantling those restraints one by one. By savagely attacking Carly Fiorina’s looks and Ted Cruz’s wife he dismantled the codes of etiquette that prevent politics from becoming an unmodulated screaming match. By lying more or less all the time, he dismantles the fealty to truth without which conversation is impossible. By refusing to automatically respect the election results he corrodes confidence in our common institutions and risks turning public life into a never-ending dogfight.
Clinton has contributed to the degradation too. As the James O’Keefe videos remind us, wherever Hillary Clinton has gone in her career, a cloud of unsavory people and unsavory behavior has traveled alongside. But she is right to emphasize that Trump is the greatest threat to moral capital in recent history and that the health of that capital is more fundamental than any particular policy position.
The sad fact is that in the realm of common life, gnats can undo the work of giants. “Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy,” Jonathan Haidt writes in his book “The Righteous Mind.” “When we think about very large communities such as nations, the challenge is extraordinary and the threat of moral entropy is intense.”
We are now in a country in which major presidential candidates can gibe about the menstrual cycles of their interviewers and the penis size of their opponents. We are now in a society in which the childish desires of a reality-TV narcissist can insult the inheritance that Washington and Hamilton risked their lives to bequeath. We are now in a society in which serial insults to basic decency aren’t automatically disqualifying.
Clearly, we have a giant task of moral repair ahead of us. That starts with a renunciation of the Trump style. One big lesson of 2016 is that that can only happen if people police members of their own party. If somebody is destroying the basic social and moral fabric through brutalistic rhetoric and vicious misogynistic behavior, it doesn’t really matter that he agrees with you on taxes and the Supreme Court; he has to be renounced or else he will drag the whole society to a level of degradation that will make all decent politics impossible.
It also means addressing the substantive social chasms that fueled Trump’s rise. We are clearly going to have a lot of angry populists around in the years ahead, of right and left. It should be possible to oppose them with a political movement that champions dynamism with cohesion, globalism with solidarity – a movement that supports free trade, open skilled immigration, ethnic diversity and a free American-led world order, but also local community building, state-fostered economic security, moral cohesion and patriotic purpose.
In other words, it should be possible to be conservative on macroeconomics, liberal on immigration policy, traditionalist on moral and civic matters, Swedish on welfare state policies, and Reaganesque on America’s role in the world.
The election of 2016 has exposed the staleness of the Republican and Democratic ideologies. It has also established a nihilistic, reality TV standard of conduct that will pull down the country if it is allowed to survive. The one nice thing about Trump is that he has prompted so many people to find their voice, and to turn from their revulsion to a higher alternative.