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Moral Overload

Donald Trump’s election as president was a shattering defeat for left-of-center Americans. Commentators said that Democrats had focused too much on protecting specific groups—racial minorities, immigrants, and so on—and not enough on appealing to a broad public.1

The Democratic deficit was not only in votes, however, but in style. In recent decades, the Left has fallen into a manner of moral argument that offends many voters as much as anything Trump has done. Advocates have indeed focused on specific “identity” groups rather than average people, but above all they have done so in a peremptory manner that insults more moderate Americans whose support they need. That above all must change.

But change will be difficult, because the peremptory style goes back decades and has deep roots in the nation’s religious traditions. The majority of Americans follow Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. All these faiths levy a strong obligation on society to aid the poor. Even most people who are not overtly religious affirm this tradition, and the same is true in Europe, even though Europeans are mostly nonreligious. The moral priority of the poor is a kind of basement that lives on after the house of faith has fallen.

The problem is that this moral imperative to help the poor, which is uncontested, has morphed into claims for many different groups that are much more divisive. To advance those claims more effectively will require a less peremptory and more catholic style. Here I describe what caring for the poor originally meant, how it has changed, and how it might change back. The way forward for the Left is to return to the broader-based reform politics of the past.

The Peremptory Style

In the Bible, the poor appear as marginalized, mostly because they have violated Judaism’s many rules or suffer dread illnesses such as leprosy. Yet the scriptures say society is supposed to provide for them. In the Hebrew Bible, the prophets repeatedly upbraid rulers and religious leaders for failing to do this. In the New Testament, Jesus famously promises (in Matthew 25) that only those who have succored the needy in this life will get to Heaven in the next.

Note that these demands are peremptory. That is, they must simply be made and their authority is granted, at least in principle. They require no political work. Advocates need not build coalitions to support them or come to terms with opponents. Rather, they assume three things: that the poor are mistreated as claimed, that helping them is in everyone’s interest, and that doing so is possible. In the peremptory style, the only issue is moral—whether those in power will do God’s will.

The biblical poor are always seen as within the community. They are not, in most cases, ethnically distinct from the rest of society. Nor are they morally distinct. The command to help them is part of a general moral order that applies to them as well as the nonpoor. They are also only a small minority; caring for them does not mean transforming the entire society. The prophets who defend the poor seek above all to reaffirm the moral connection between them and the better-off, but they do not ask for revolution, and they leave details to others.

These conditions prevailed in the United States and the West generally up through the 1960s, but none of them prevails today. It is not so clear today who suffers disadvantage, nor that responding is in everyone’s interest, nor that government has answers. The Left emphasizes that its preferred groups are distinct from mainstream society, both ethnically and culturally. Today’s “poor” are also many more in number relative to the nonpoor. They could not be uplifted without transforming the society we have. And yet we apply to them the peremptory rhetoric of the older, much different, moral tradition.

The Progressive World

That is a great change from a century ago. In the Progressive era, the United States clearly fit the traditional moral template. Society was divided, but chiefly by class. Leaders struggled to assuage the grievances of farmers and industrial workers laboring in difficult conditions. In response, government undertook the first serious regulation of the market economy. Other reformers tackled political corruption in the cities. The challenge was to reconcile the need for bigger government with the nation’s small-government traditions.2

Some religious leaders preached a “Social Gospel,” demanding that society more earnestly address social inequality.3 Reformers like Jane Addams set up “settlement houses” in slum areas where the better-off helped aid and educate the poor. These leaders called for social reform while also upholding traditional mores for struggling workers and families. Economic evils were admitted, but personal responsibility for good behavior went unquestioned. In moral structure, this was ancient Israel writ large.4

Race was already an issue in national politics. Within living memory, the nation had fought a civil war to abolish slavery, and the movement to challenge Jim Crow through legal and political action was beginning. But in Progressive times, race was never the trump card it became later. In Jacob Riis’s famed pictures of the poor living on New York’s Lower East Side in 1901, black migrants from the South are lumped in with various white ethnic groups and immigrants, with no special distinctions. What afflicted them all was poverty.5 The moral call was to alleviate poverty. This was a thoroughly biblical vision.

From Poverty to Identity

The first blow to this order was Nazism. Through the Holocaust, Hitler taught the West that attempts to define and proscribe out-groups in ascriptive terms were particularly evil. To attack a person’s identity became far worse than merely to ignore need or inequality. The greatest evil now became not poverty, in a material sense, but discrimination, or denying equal rights to any group due to personal features. In the moral understanding of poverty, personal attributes now trumped economics.

Then in the 1960s race issues, which had been quiescent for decades, exploded anew and drove other social problems off the agenda. The spectacle of Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers stoically enduring the assaults of Southern racists cast blacks as innocent victim of social injustice. And that image has endured.

Having espoused civil rights, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson launched a War on Poverty in the early 1960s in an attempt to give equal attention to the white poor. But as soon as riots broke out northern cities in 1964–5, the war speedily refocused on blacks. The claims of the mostly white labor movement, which had dominated politics before then, were eclipsed and increasingly seen as a separate issue.

A wave of Hispanics later came to America voluntarily, not as slaves, yet some of their advocates claimed discrimination just as black leaders did.6 Academics likewise gave privileged attention to race, while neglecting class.7 Although some minority groups are typically poorer than the average, their status came to be determined mainly by race rather than economic need.

Claimant groups have also come to include different sexual identities, further obscuring economic notions of disadvantage. Recently, when some transgender youth were denied choice about which bathroom to use, the Obama administration immediately issued a regulation to protect them. That any group should suffer mistreatment due to personal attributes was unthinkable. In sum, “identity,” rather than need, became the dominant meaning of justice during the last several decades.8

Whatever the merits of each of these claims, their cumulative effect made the peremptory case for moral action less clear. While 13 percent of Americans are still officially poor, those now perceived to be deserving of protection are no longer a small minority. Several of the protected groups are small, but if one includes all minorities and immigrants they greatly outnumber the official poor. And if one includes women, vulnerable to mistreatment by men, they become a large majority of the population. Thus the “poor” have morphed into a much longer list of claimants, many not poor at all. Yet advocates continue to make peremptory, one-sided claims for all of them, in the manner of the biblical prophets.

The focus on identity also makes the redress of grievances more complicated. As long as poverty was something economic, it could be assuaged by measures to raise incomes among the needy, and, in some cases at least, America has done rather well at that. Claims to discrimination, however, cannot be satisfied in any definitive way. How does one determine whether vulnerable groups have failed to prosper due to mistreatment—or because of other factors? Why do they do not do more to help themselves? And how much can really be done to make them feel accepted? The answers to these questions are much more contestable today than they were generations ago.

The result is an extreme moral overload. Added up, the demands made for all the protected groups overwhelm everyone else. All groups define themselves against nonpoor, non-Hispanic white men, who are presumed to be dominant and untroubled. They are told that they must answer all these demands, yet they are only 29 percent of the adult population.9 No wonder they feel like a minority themselves. Nobody else believes them, but they also feel victimized, if only by all these demands. So they voted for Trump.

Responsibility and Culture

Aside from peremptory calls to protect many groups from mistreatment, the Left’s arguments have often weakened society’s usual expectations for good behavior. These norms include obeying the law, getting through school, having children within marriage, and so on. In America until the 1960s, such norms were seldom questioned, but today many of the groups drawing liberal attention are effectively excused. Given their disadvantages, many progressives argue that they cannot be expected to comply.

Of course, most people, whether or not protected, continue to obey the rules. Social order has in some ways improved. Welfare and crime have fallen sharply since the 1990s, although unwed pregnancy still grows. But leaders in the public or private sector no longer reprove the disorders of low-income areas in the reflexive, moralistic way the original Progressives did. In congressional hearings on welfare reform since the 1960s, for example, witnesses criticized welfare policy, but almost never the recipients themselves.10 A taboo deterred all open criticism of the vulnerable, even by conservatives.11

That is new. In the biblical tradition, norms of good behavior applied to everyone, even the poorest. The issue was not who was responsible but who should be forgiven their misdeeds. Jesus argues for forgiveness, but even in his parable of the prodigal son, the norms are respected. The prodigal repents of his misdeeds before he is forgiven (Luke 15:11–32). Nobody openly expects that today of groups in which social problems run high, such as crime or drug addiction. Rather, experts debate how to solve those problems as if only society were responsible.

To give one illustration, in police violence controversies, officers are reproved for shooting poor black men, but media and political attention largely ignores the many poor black men who shoot other blacks in battles between drug gangs. The difference is that the police are largely whites who can be held responsible for something, whereas poor black men are assumed to lack all agency because of oppressive outside social forces.

Liberal reticence about responsibility also reflects a massive social change that many never wished for. The Progressive era could take for granted a society in which the vast majority of Americans accepted personal responsibility for themselves. That included internalizing and fulfilling society’s norms.

This is also the psychology assumed in traditional morality and its peremptory rhetoric. The biblical prophets demand, in essence, that rich and poor must each fulfill their obligations to the other. The poor should obey the “law,” while the more fortunate should forgive and uplift those who stumble. For both high and low, the moralism of a common code charts the way back to a stronger community. The protected groups, however, are tacitly shielded from much of this direct, personal responsibility.


These differences have become more salient because of massive immigration in recent decades. In the past fifty years, nearly 59 million immigrants have crowded into the United States, the most for any receiving nation. The great majority of them came from Latin America and Asia, with 28 percent from Mexico alone.15 The intake reflects business interests that favor immigration as well as pressure from past immigrants seeking to bring in family members. For the newcomers, assimilation is a huge challenge.

The immigration wave reflects in part the long shadow of Matthew 25. Although the upsurge is unpopular, the liberal establishment believes that lenient immigration policies are morally required. Hence its support even for illegal immigrants who broke the law to come here.

Immigration adds to the moral overload implicit in recent rhetoric. By 2065, given current trends, whites will have declined to less than half the population. They are already a minority of public schoolchildren.16 And yet under current moral assumptions, they will continue to be responsible for the entire society, while expectations are minimized for everyone else.

Indeed, such moral pressure will probably increase in the future. As he left office, President Obama warned that, “If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children—because these brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce.” As Obama makes clear, “we” the native-born are morally different from immigrants, and the responsibility for uplifting them rests entirely on “us.” 17

In the future, immigration will likely increase still further. Due to war and hardship abroad, millions of migrants seek safety in Western countries, in both Europe and America. Worldwide, 700 million people would move to the West if they could, 165 million of them to the United States.18 In short, today’s “poor” hugely outnumber those who are supposed to take care of them, as they never do in the biblical moral tradition. For less privileged native citizens, who face all these demands, that future is dismal.

Curbing Moral Overload

Of course, integrating the seriously poor and immigrants is a real problem, not created by the Left. It cannot be solved just by reverting to the unconscious moralism of the Progressives. A blunt message to do right will mostly fall on deaf ears. For the moment, greater social responsibility is inevitable. A new social crusade to uplift and assimilate the downtrodden is essential, just as the president says.

Broad support for such an effort, however, will be lacking unless the extreme demands lately made for protected groups are curbed. The claimants for peremptory attention must be reduced and must be held more responsible than they now are. Three steps seem essential:

  • Limit the poor to the economically needy, excluding the many identity groups now included. Political and media attention is limited, and the true poor must get priority.
  • Insist that the employable poor work in return for support, confining unconditional aid to the unemployable. To do this is only fair to nonpoor society.
  • Limit immigration to half the current rate, so that the poor remain a minority and assimilation has a better chance to succeed, as the Jordan Commission recommended.19

Not by accident, national social policy already tends in all these directions. Trump has repudiated identity politics and runaway immigration. These steps would all reduce economic inequality and thus serve liberal ends. Equally important, they would reduce moral overload, by returning the moral basis of social policy closer to the traditional, biblical norm.

From Poverty to Social Reform

The other necessity for the Left is to downplay the peremptory moral style entirely and instead pursue social reform. The greatest progressive achievements in the American past have come not from the sort of narrow, one-sided advocacy recently seen but from wider movements for fundamental change. These, too, were moralistic, but they appealed to a broad public, as most of the recent claims do not. They operated through national legislation, rather than the executive and judicial actions that liberals have recently relied on. Above all, they adopted a long-term political strategy aimed at winning over the general public rather than just elites and the media.

The first great cause was the Civil War, in which North defeated South over slavery after decades of coalition-building and conflict. Next came the Progressives’ early measures to regulate robber-baron capitalism, then the New Deal enactments that created the welfare state and helped overcome the Depression. Above all, the civil rights movement established a broad consensus for equal racial opportunity in America, embodied not only in the civil rights laws but in a changed public opinion. The feminist and gay movements also had a broader basis than advocacy, and their claims for equal treatment were finally codified in both law and opinion.

All these movements worked to establish the three things that the peremptory style takes for granted: that there really was an injury requiring public redress, that doing so would be in the general interest rather than just that of the claimants, and that the redress claimed would really solve the problem.20 Leaders had to make their own moral arguments but also listen to opponents, make efforts to reassure them, and come to consensus. A Lincoln or a Martin Luther King took care not to demonize his opponents. And thus a new world was built.

Progressives must disdain the easy satisfactions gained from publicizing every grievance of out-groups and instead settle down to long-term political tasks. Failure to do that has defeated some liberal causes in the past, such as the Equal Rights Amendment.21 Immigration is above all the current issue that demands a broad, political approach. Attempts to somehow legalize the illegals by getting around Congress or creating a fait accompli, as Obama did, will fail. While the public continues to support some immigration, it demands that the flow be reduced, and a militant minority will likely defeat any attempt to simply amnesty the illegals.22 Only a long-term strategy can build support for some kind of settlement.

The Theological Problem

In the background is a large theological problem: how do we reconcile our moral tradition of peremptory demands with modern politics? That style arose long ago, in ancient Israel, where an unaccountable oligarchy ruled and where there were no elections or political rights. To get any attention for the poor, the prophets had no alternative but to indict rulers from afar. But today, over two millennia later, Western countries—including Israel—have developed strong states guaranteeing a range of political and civil rights. They also have built welfare states assuring at least some sustenance to the needy. There is now no need to shout from the hilltops to get the needy attention, nor is doing so as justifiable or politic as it once was.

In a world where political and civil rights already exist, to single out social groups for special attention risks achieving not justice but privilege. The protected groups are then shielded from the criticism that other groups face, but resentment among the unprotected risks a backlash, as Trump shows. The way forward is a more candid, open political style in which even the nonpoor have a voice. However ineptly, that is what Trump has promoted.25 To answer him, progressives must get down to more serious political work. And the theologians must reconcile our moral traditions with democratic politics.

1 Mark Lilla, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” New York Times, November 20, 2016, pp. SR1, SR6; George Packer, “The Disconnected,” New Yorker, October 31, 2016, 48–61.

2 Eldon J. Eisenach, The Lost Promise of Progressivism (Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1994); Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (New York: Macmillan, 1909).

3 Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, ed. Robert D. Cross (New York: Macmillan, 1907).

4 Gertrude Himmelfarb, Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (New York: Vintage, 1991); Joel Schwartz, Fighting Poverty With Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825–2000 (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2000).

5 Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (New York: Scribner, 1890).

6 Peter Skerry, Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority (New York: Free Press, 1993).

7 Richard D. Kahlenberg, “Harvard’s Class Gap,” Harvard Magazine 119, no. 5 (May/June 2017): 35–9.

8 Lilla, “End of Identity Liberalism.”

9 Calculated from the U.S. Census, March 2017 Current Population Survey, table POV1.

10 Lawrence M. Mead, “Welfare Politics in Congress,” PS: Political Science and Politics 44, no. 2 (April 2011): 345–56.

11 Ronald Reagan is commonly thought to have criticized “welfare queens.” He did give a speech in Chicago where he used that term. But he borrowed it from the local press who had coined it for a local welfare mother who abused the system; he did not invent it. See “‘Welfare Queen’ Becomes Issue in Reagan Campaign,” New York Times, February 15, 1976, 51.

15 “Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065” (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, September 28, 2015).

16 Ibid.; “The New White Minority,” Economist, August 23, 2014, 22.

17 Quoted in Oliva Golden, “The Trump Agenda Poses a Major Threat to America’s Children,” Washington Monthly, January 19, 2017.

18 Mark Krikorian, “The Real Immigration Debate: Whom to Let In and Why,” Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2017.

19 U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (Jordan Commission), Becoming an American: Immigration and Immigrant Policy (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, September 1997).

20 Lawrence M. Mead, “Is Complaint a Moral Argument?” in NOMOS XLIV: Child, Family, and State, ed. Stephen Macedo and Iris Marion Young (New York: New York University Press, 2003), chap. 4.

21 Jane J. Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

22 Kenneth F. Scheve and Matthew J. Slaughter, Globalization and the Perceptions of American Workers (Washington, D.C.: Institute of International Economics, March 2001); Morris Levy, Matthew Wright, and Jack Citrin, “Mass Opinion and Immigration Policy in the United States: Re-Assessing Clientelist and Elitist Perspectives,” Perspectives on Politics 14, no. 3 (September 2016): 660–80.

25 Lawrence M. Mead, “Trump’s Impact: The End of Sameness,” Society 54, no. 1 (Jan./Feb. 2017): 14–17.

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