What interests me about the Roy Moore scandal is not so much the actual scandal. “Grandstanding politician abuses his position to get away with creepy sexual behavior” is a story as old as politics itself. What is more interesting is one particular line of reasoning being used to make excuses for Moore.
Here it is as expressed by an Alabama pastor who still supports Moore: “It’s funny how the Republican Party is. What a bunch of sissies! The Democrats rally around their candidate even when they’re guilty, Republicans want to throw them under the bus on a minor accusation without knowing whether they’re guilty or not.”
Yeah, what a bunch of sissies, to get all squeamish about electing a senator who used to troll the local malls for high school girls! This is the kind of line we’re hearing now. Because the other side is amoral and dishonest, it’s important for the right to fight back by lowering our standards, too. Sound familiar? This is rehash of the “BUT HE FIGHTS” argument for Donald Trump. He may be a blustering megalomaniac with a louche personal life, a weak spot for the racist “alt-right,” and a compulsion for distracting himself with petty Twitter feuds. But this is a bare-knuckles political brawl and we needed an unprincipled street fighter to strike back against the left. After all, they do it, too! So we all need to get down into the same gutter.
Aside from the problem that two wrongs don’t make a right, which you would think a pastor would understand, there is a more immediate practical reason why dismissing the rules and norms of a decent society is a disaster.
Bethany Mandel recently quoted Roy Moore back to himself: “Our peace and happiness as well as our prosperity depend not on any political party or any great leader, but rather upon our return as a nation to faith in Almighty God.” I don’t agree with the specifics of Moore’s worldview, but I do agree that our personal values and virtues are far more important for our long-run success and happiness than the outcome of specific political contests.
That’s particularly true because we are headed toward national crises that are likely to be of far greater import than whether the other side scores partisan points against us in the next news cycle. They are the kind of deep and profound crises that will throw us back on our cultural and political reserves, and most particularly on the strength of our values and the vitality of our norms and institutions.
Here is an overview of the main areas where we can expect to confront crises that will require resources of much greater importance than one extra vote in the Senate.
1. The national debt.
Above everything else there is the specter of the national debt and the unsustainable long-term cost of middle-class entitlements.
Our entire political status quo, in terms of the balance between free markets and the welfare state, is financed with massive amounts of debt, and at some point we won’t be able to keep borrowing our way out of the problem. There will be a reckoning, and when it comes it will be all the more traumatic because we have put it off so long.
This has been clear to me since congressional Republicans and President Trump stalled out in their efforts to repeal Obamacare. If they can’t unwind the newest of the entitlement programs, they won’t be able to reform any of them, and the problem will keep building until there is a crisis. Then again, Obamacare is become a whole separate crisis of its own.
2. The wreckage of Obamacare.
I have recently encountered a number of businesses and non-profit organization that are reeling from the impact of rising health insurance costs, which are forcing them to their raise their prices or lay off workers. Obamacare upended the entire health care system on the promise that it was going to solve this problem. Instead, it made it worse. Health care costs are spiraling out of control because of a program that didn’t work but that nobody can manage to get rid of.
3. Slow growth.
No wonder this is an era of slow economic growth. America’s post-World War II growth averaged between 2% and 3%. For the past 15 years, it has been under 1%. This is a crisis because slow growth breeds stagnation and hopelessness. A return to 4% growth, or more, would provide a vibrant economy full of opportunities and allow us to grow our way out of our massive debt. But it would take radical change to get us there.
4. The revival of fascism and Communism.
If these crises are going to force us to seek out new political solutions, what are we being offered? Some who claim to be on the right, if only the “alt-right,” are trying to revive white nationalism and fascism, both in our own back yards and in Europe. Just to keep the horror balanced, some on the left are attempting to revive Communism under the banner of a violent, intolerant “anti-fascism.”
5. Campus totalitarianism.
All of this starts in the very institution that ought to be stamping out intolerance and authoritarianism: higher education. Instead, universities are leading the way toward a regime of totalitarian groupthink led by fanatical student mobs.
In addition to our own problems, we are faced with a world of trouble coming to us from outside our borders.
6. Russia’s designs for conquest in Europe.
After 25 years of enjoying a “peace dividend” in Europe, resurgent Russian imperialism is bringing war back to Europe, trying to swallow Ukraine and intimidate the rest of Eastern Europe. And oh, yes, they are also trying to use Internet troll farms to meddle in our politics, too, spreading conspiracy theories and magnifying our political divisions.
7. Regional war in the Middle East.
After nine years of the United States choosing a passive role in the Middle East, the conflict in the region is turning into a Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which could become a full-scale war (and draw in the United States and its allies) at any moment.
8. North Korean nukes.
North Korea is on its third generation of insane despots and is plunging forward on work to put nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles that can reach our shores, while the US and its allies are furiously scrambling to build missile defense systems.
9. China’s lead on AI.
While the current administration is obsessed that China is stealing manufacturing jobs, the Chinese are actually focused on getting a lead in artificial intelligence and dominating the next wave of technological development.
Radical Islam has not stopped targeting the United States, and while we’ve managed to stave off attacks on the scale of 9/11, groups like ISIS are still recruiting and radicalizing supposed “lone wolf” attackers. We can’t dismiss the possibility of a Paris-style attack that shuts down a major city and leaves dozens, even hundreds of people dead.
And then of course, there is the worst crisis of all: Twitter going to a 280 characters.
But seriously, we could and probably will find ourselves someday facing difficult and costly wars and violent internal conflict while mired in a debt crisis that we’re not able to grow our way out of. If all of these crises do not hit at once, at least some of them will. When that happens, what are we going to need above all else? We’re going to need to draw upon and reinforce the value and norms that make it possible to solve these problems, and to keep from killing each other in the process.
What are we going to need in the coming era of crisis? We’re going to need to defend the idea that liberty and the rule of law are more important than embracing a strongman who fights for our tribe. We’re going to need to be willing to subordinate partisan brawling and find common ground in shared American values. And we’re going to need someone who remembers what those values were.
We’re going to need to value clear thinking and deliberate action over impulsive emotionalism, and we’re going to need to value the long term over the illusion of a superficial, short-term “win.” We need to realize that men who put fame or ambition above principles are the kind who make our crises worse, not better.
Above all, we need to focus on the importance of ideas, values, and norms as bulwarks against the forces that are about to drive us to chaos. When the chips are really down—and it can get far, far worse from here—it might not be much of a comfort to know that the grandstanding creep in the Senate (or the White House) has your party’s initial after his name.
And hey, Democrats, this message is for you, too. So check the temptation to chuckle at the Roy Moore fiasco and instead step back and think carefully before you start talking up Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign.