Publicizing virtue and privatizing morality

Yet again American citizens want it both ways. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman reports that voters are becoming simultaneously more statist in their attitude toward government and more relativistic in their moral outlook. Thus in a recent poll, Mellman found that 60% of American voters worried that the government "isn't doing enough to help ordinary people deal with the problems they face." Simultaneously, Mellman found that, "by a narrow margin", Americans were discarding "absolute standards of right and wrong" and instead believing that"everyone has to decide for themselves what is right and wrong in particular situations."

In other words, the American voter desires the logically impossible -- to simultaneously publicize virtue and privatize morality.

So why isn't the American government doing enough for its citizens? The main reason is that it's been undermined by a relentless Republican assault over the last 28 years. As Thomas Frank reminds us in the Journal this morning, the American government has been deregulated to death by the party of McCain and Palin. Thus the current economic meltdown of the radically free market financial system. As Frank convincing argues:

"There is simply no way to blame this disaster, as Republicans used to do, on labor unions or over-regulation. No, this is the conservatives' beloved financial system doing what comes naturally. Freed from the intrusive meddling of government, just as generations of supply-siders and entrepreneurial exuberants demanded it be, the American financial establishment has proceeded to cheat and deceive and beggar itself -- and us -- to the edge of Armageddon. It is as though Wall Street was run by a troupe of historical re-enactors determined to stage all the classic panics of the 19th century."

It's interesting, by the way, that 21st century Republicans are trying to cope with the classic panic of the 19th century with a troupe of historical re-enactors determined to glorify the small-town moral certainties of 19th century American politics. 21st American government is also increasingly resembling the shrunken, disheveled American 19th century state. As Frank notes, deregulation has also had a disastrous impact upon the quality of the federal worker in America. Instead of the best and the brightest, the government now attracts the dumb and the dumbest:

Thanks to the party of Romney and McCain, federal work is today so financially unattractive to top talent that it might as well be charity work. It's one of the main reasons -- other than outright conquest by the industries they're supposed to be overseeing -- that our regulatory agencies can't seem to get out of bed in the morning.

In response to all this, Frank calls for a "class war" (whatever that means). I would prefer a culture war. The challenge for Democrats is to shake the American voter out of their private moral relativism. By making federal work financially attractive to talent, the Democrats can rebuild the brand of government to make it able to confront the looming economic, infrastructural, educational and environmental challenges of the 21st century. Obama -- as the Harvard Law graduate who chose to work in government -- is the ideal symbol and spokesman of a 21st century cultural revolution which revalues the critical role of the meritocrat in responsible government.

So the choice for America is either the politics of the 19th or of the 21st century. One or the other, but not both. The American voter, who always wants it both ways, will be forced to make their absolute moral decision about this one on November 4th.