The Washington Post's Morality

Believe it or not, there was a time in this country, and there soon will be again, when “morality” or “ethics” was not shorthand for cruel talk about sex. When Upton Sinclair said, “My efforts are to find out what is righteousness in the world, to live it, and try to help others to live it,” he was talking about helping huge groups of people out of misery, helping them to lead fuller lives. In other words he was “mixing” ethics with economic issues. The furthest thing from his mind was promoting sexual abstinence or church attendance or weekend volunteerism.

A poll published by the Washington Post Sept. 30, 2000, asked people if they were satisfied with five aspects of the United States: “state of the nation’s economy,” “state of national defense and the military,” “state of the nation’s public schools,” “availability and affordability of health care,” and “moral values in this country.” (A majority were satisfied only with the first two.)

Morality is tacked on the end as something separate. But what can it mean? Is the state of an economy in which most people are working longer for less and going deeper into debt while a few are growing unprecedentedly wealthy a non-moral issue? Is the idea that we need to spend $300,000,000,000 on not only military but also “defense” when all of our supposed enemies combined don’t spend a third of that a non-moral issue? Is the not-unrelated underfunding of our schools or the right-wing proposals to rescue some kids, privatize education, proselytize children, and let the public schools collapse a non-moral issue? Is being the only industrialized country in which people suffer with no health insurance and the financial and human costs of health are systematically increased by reducing them in the short term a non-moral issue? If so, what’s left for the Post’s final category to contain?

For some Americans mentioning morality means mentioning decency and the all-encompassing idea of trying to make fewer people miserable and more people happier. For other Americans most of life is supposed to be a morality-free zone. Businesses are to be run with an eye to nothing but the bottomline and avoidance of criminal or civil prosecution. This includes, of course, avoiding paying taxes to governments which might use them for the military, schools, and health care, among much else. Morality, for these people, is not an overarching goal, such as “Act so as to increase happiness.” Rather, morality is a smattering of isolated and unrelated commandments from some mysterious authority. This authority is not supposed to be oneself, but one is supposed to be able to disagree with everybody else on what this authority has to say. Mostly, the authority is interested in sex.

The Post is in the second category of thinkers about morality. This is why the headline of its article is “For Democrats, Surprising Edge on Moral Values.” For the Post, the fact that Bush and Cheney are more openly hostile to humanity than Gore and Lieberman is irrelevant. The important consideration is that Clinton got a blowjob in the White House. Cheney’s voting record is ranked as low as you can go in terms of helping American working families, according to the AFL-CIO. Bush is not just a mean person who laughs at the relatives of people he executes and probably – given his apparent near illiteracy – doesn’t really read his victims’ cases. His policies are destructive in the extreme. He is set on destroying the environment, workers’ rights, criminal defendants’ rights, and the right of victims of corporations to sue in court. In the words of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D, Minn.), Bush will repeal the 20th century. And the Washington Post is surprised that Gore is deemed more moral? He hardly had to reach any heights of moral greatness to win that one!

The Post reports that people who say “values” are important favor Bush/Cheney, while Gore/Lieberman lead in “morality” with the majority of voters for whom “values” are less important. Well, that’s because we all know that what the Post means by values is things like sexual abstinence, monogamy, abortion, condemnation of homosexuality, and perhaps abstinence from illegal drug use – something Bush is known to come up short in, despite his cruel and hypocritical work imprisoning others for the same behavior he engaged in.

The Post reported that it went on to ask people whether they thought a number of topics were “a ‘moral’ issue involving your beliefs about what is morally right and wrong, or you don’t think of it as a moral issue?” The inconsistent scare-quoting of “moral” may or may not have come across during the telephone survey of 1,477 registered voters (not a very big sample). But the words “belief about what is right and wrong” certainly did. This frames the question in terms of the second of the two types of morality I described above. For some people morality is not a question of what you religiously “believe” is the wish of a mysterious authority. Rather it is what you choose as being most productive of human (and perhaps non-human) well-being – often a question of better or worse, even of uncertain experimentation, rather than “right or wrong.”

Even so, the responses the Post got are interesting. Between 38 percent and 76 percent of respondents thought each topic was, indeed, a moral matter – this despite the fact that some of the topics dealt with the economy and health care.

As the wording of the question guaranteed, the biggest groups of respondents thought the following issues were moral: “breakup of the family” (76 percent), “sex and violence in the media” (74 percent), “example a president sets by his personal behavior” (73 percent), and “abortion” (70 percent). But when asked if these issues would be among the most important in determining their votes, only 33 to 47 percent said they would. As instructed, these people were distinguishing between what is moral and what it is best to do – a bizarre distinction for those who see morality as part of everyday life.

The topic deemed moral by the next largest group (65 percent) was “expanding health care coverage for all Americans.” This was the topic that the largest group (53 percent) said would be among the most important issues determining their votes.

Think about that. More than half of registered voters – if we are to take this survey seriously – are going to vote in support of a proposal that is only being made by one candidate, Ralph Nader. And the Post doesn’t so much as mention him. In another poll, however, Nader scored 100 for integrity, while the other candidates were nowhere close.

The next most commonly moral issues in the Post’s poll were “protecting the environment” (64 percent), “death penalty” (63 percent), “inequality between whites and minorities” (63 percent), and “gun control” (54 percent).

Despite the Post’s framing of the question, 41 percent said “taxes and the tax system” was a moral issue, 40 percent said “campaign finance reform” was, and 38 percent said “the differences in income between people with high incomes and people with low incomes” was a moral issue. From 22 to 32 percent said these were among the most important issues in deciding their votes. These numbers would almost certainly be much higher if the survey had been worded slightly differently. And, again, they are not all that low considering that only Nader is seriously proposing campaign finance reform or an effort to reduce income disparity and his name was kept out of the poll.

Corporate welfare was not a topic the Post asked about. Neither were: sprawl, police brutality, incarceration rates, poverty, lack of welfare, the minimum wage, the right of workers to organize, dependence on fossil fuels, public transportation, food safety, globalization, violence against women, access to government records, or the bombing of foriegn countries.

Only half of the respondents were asked each of two questions about the two big parties’ candidates – hardly a large enough sample to be worth much. For what it may be worth, here’s what they said. When half were asked whether Gore or Bush would do a better job improving the nation’s moral values, 42 percent said Gore, 43 percent Bush, 8 percent both or neither, and 7 percent didn’t know. So, they’re statistically dead even, and 15 percent see no difference between them.

The other half of respondents were asked the same question, but with Lieberman’s and Cheney’s names included in it. Gore/Lieberman was picked by 49 percent, Bush/Cheney by 39 percent, while 5 percent said both or neither, and 7 percent didn’t know. Is the difference between this question and the other one due to Cheney’s horrible record or the media’s obsession with Lieberman’s religiosity, or some of each? Or is it due to Lieberman’s horrible record? I have no way of knowing.

I’d like to see a very different poll done:
1) What should the federal government be working hardest on? Please list topics in order of importance.
2) Who should be elected president in order to best accomplish those goals?

These are what is known in journalism and law as non-leading questions.