The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The absurd arguments we make to defend Roy Moore and Al Franken are getting dangerous

Roy Moore, left, and Al Franken. (AP; Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

There’s a common denominator among Democrats and Republicans uneasy about the stories surrounding Sen. Al Franken and Senate candidate Roy Moore. Even those who are willing to speak consistently about both know that they will face fury from some in their respective bases who will tell them they shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize “our side.” This is a dangerous and reckless game, for all of us.

The problem is not that people are unwilling to make moral judgments. The moral relativists become moral absolutists in a moment, across social media or on cable television, and vice versa, and then both revert back again. This shifting of rhetoric isn’t even about differing views of the issues in question.

Many progressives will denounce loudly the moral violations of conservatives, sometimes with all the moral certainty of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Many conservatives who have spoken loudly about virtue and integrity will retreat to “Well, what about the other side?” when the question is about one of their own, with all the relativism of a postmodern deconstructionist in a faculty lounge.

The problem here is not some serious debate over the facts of allegations. That should always happen. The problem lies with those who would say, “Even if these things are true, they don’t matter,” or, “They might matter, but not enough to lose an election.”

This ought to alarm all of us, wherever we stand on the political spectrum, because it is an apocalyptic moment in American life — if we define “apocalypse” rightly as a revelation, pulling back the curtain on what has been unseen but present. What we are seeing is that politics is not about putting principles to work for the task of statecraft. Politics is more like a video game, in which the various players adopt parties and politicians as avatars of the self.

When this is true, it becomes easy enough to deify those on “our side,” because we never even seriously consider whether charges against them might be true. It’s all just incoming pseudo-warfare from the “other side.” That’s why, regardless of whether on the left or the right, many are willing to believe elaborate conspiracies are behind any suggestion of impropriety by someone on their “team.” The character issue doesn’t need to be worked through at all, if one already knows that those who are part of my tribe are saints and those who are part of the other are demons. That’s settled. The issues then are just used insofar as they are useful as footnotes to those already existing pledges of allegiance.

Everyone in American life at least pretends to believe in some objective moral norms. When forced to choose, though, between the objectivity of morality and the idolatry of politics, morality loses, more often than not. This is dangerous because, for one thing, it props up very serious predation on the part of leaders who know that, no matter what they do, there will be at least a fervent cloud of witnesses for their integrity, no matter the evidence to the contrary.

But even apart from the very serious moral damage, the crisis here is one that ultimately will undo even what the enabling moral relativists seem to care most about — their ideological movements. Once the next generation comes to see that progressives don’t really care about “social justice” or that conservatives don’t really care about “family values” except as rhetorical tools, they will walk away, toward something else. Note the collapsing trust in institutions, seen in virtually every survey of younger Americans. Many factors account for this, but one driving factor is cynicism, the idea that institutions are just about keeping power for those who already have it.

Moral clarity is its own justification. As an evangelical Christian, I believe we will all give an account at the judgment seat of God. But you don’t have to agree with me on that to see something of what’s at stake when the next generation comes to think that the society around them believes in nothing. When conscience means nothing, all that is left is power. The result is a nihilism that, history has shown us, ends up nowhere good.

We will always have disagreements among ourselves, including over important moral questions. Some things though — such as creeping on adolescent girls or groping women in the workplace — ought not to be up for debate. Right and wrong shouldn’t be determined by whether there’s an “R” or a “D” after someone’s name.