“The secret to success is sincerity,” said French diplomat and novelist Jean Giraudoux. “Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Of course, fake sincerity is an oxymoron. A slick sales pitch can fool people for a while, but long-term political change requires real sincerity. And that comes from moral values. (More)

Bring It Home, Part III – Be Sincere (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature will discuss closing strong on this year’s election campaign: what my high school basketball coach used to call bringing it home. Thursday we brought it home person-by-person. Yesterday we brought it home with local issues. Today we’ll bring it home with moral values.

Two weeks ago we discussed six qualities of sticky ideas: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories. There’s nothing in that list about moral values, yet George Lakoff, Drew Weston, Jonathan Haidt, and other cognitive scientists offer research showing moral values at the core of effective political speech.

Why moral values?

I think the key is that effective politics is not a one-time sales pitch. Government is a slow process, and effective politics requires people who are committed not just to a candidate or an election, but for the long term. In his Monday blog article – “After the Midterms: Why Democrats Move to the Center and Republicans Don’t” – Robert Reich offered this distinction between the parties:

Why are Democratic presidents so much more easily intimidated by the “move to the center” rhetoric after midterm losses than Republican presidents?

Because Democrats think in terms of programs, policies, and particular pieces of legislation. It’s easy to reverse course by compromising more and giving up on legislative goals. Bill Clinton never mentioned the words “health care reform” after the 1994 midterms.

Republicans think in terms of simple ideas, themes, and movements. It’s far harder to reverse course on these (look what happened to the first George Bush when he raised taxes), and easier to keep them alive: Republican presidents just continue looking for opportunities to implement them.

Dr. Reich goes on to argue that the TGOP are more disciplined (or authoritarian), and also more cynical about politics. Reich says Democrats are more idealistic. Put another way: Democrats want government to help real people solve real problems. The TGOP believe, in the words of President Reagan, that “government is the problem.” It’s easy to cleave to “simple ideas, themes, and movements” about government when those ideas, themes, and movements need not yield workable government solutions. For the TGOP, failure of government is not only an option; it’s the paramount goal.

As progressive Democrats, we don’t have that option. We must find workable solutions for real problems, and that means dealing the messy details of complex problems. How do we balance that messy, complex pragmatism with the need for consistent ideas and themes around which we can rally a long-term movement? The answer – as Drs. Lakoff, Weston, Haidt, and others suggest – is to bring it home to core moral values.

“I’m worried about Obamacare.”

“I don’t like big government,” she added. “I don’t want government to run everything.”

She had a valid point. I don’t want the government to run everything either. I want freedom of speech and religion. I trust women to make decisions about pregnancy. I don’t think government should recognize only one family structure. When it comes to problems that individuals or small groups can solve, we should let them find solutions that work best for them. But what about the rest?

“The thing is,” I replied, “there are some problems most of us can’t solve as individuals. I can’t afford to build my own road or school. I can’t afford to get really sick. A serious injury or illness costs more than most of us can afford on our own.”

“You’re right about that,” she said. “The week after I signed up for Medicare, I fell and broke my arm in two places. I needed surgery. I couldn’t have paid for that myself.”

“Should we let only rich people get a broken arm fixed?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “That would be … wrong.”

“It would be wrong,” I agreed. “So we help each other. You pay into the system when you’re healthy to take care of other people who are sick, and they pay into it when they’re healthy to take care of you when you’re sick. That’s how Medicare works.”

“Medicare was great,” she said. “They took care of everything.”

“That’s how private insurance works too,” I said. “Except they do it for a profit. And since they do it for a profit, and there were no rules, they could make more money by taking premiums and then not paying when people got sick.”

I shared the story of Herself’s illness. She and her husband had heard similar stories from friends. “That’s just wrong,” he said. “We shouldn’t let insurance companies do that to people. Will Obamacare stop that?”

I explained that the 2010 health care law stopped companies from cutting off your insurance when you get sick, and by 2014 will stop them from denying coverage for preexisting conditions. I said all of us will be able to choose an insurance plan from the same list federal government employees have. Companies who cheat will get thrown off that list, so they’ll lose all those federal employees.

“Now that’s a good idea,” he said.

“Why not just let everyone get Medicare?” she asked. “It works in Canada and Holland.”

I smiled. “Maybe someday.”

“I hope so,” she said.

Bring it home. Be sincere.

That woman began the conversation by defending the tea party movement. Forty-five minutes later, she wanted single payer health care and a list of local Democratic candidates. She didn’t change her mind because of arcane health care legislation details. The change began with a moral question: “Should we let only rich people get a broken arm fixed?”

The 2010 health care act was not ideal. Like any legislation, it had compromises. As a policy analyst, I see its gaps. But I could talk sincerely about the moral question at the core of the health care debate, and a voter moved from “I’m worried about Obamacare” and “big government” to “Why not just let everyone get Medicare?”

As Democrats we shouldn’t fear moral questions. They are the stars that guide us as we navigate the messy complexities of workable solutions for real problems. They help us bring it home.


Happy Saturday!