The conventional wisdom about the 2008 election is nearly unanimous. John McCain closed the gap with Barack Obama when he emphasized cultural and moral issues, especially in his vice-presidential choice of Sarah Palin who put some lipstick on the often angry face of social conservatism. But, the Wall Street meltdown in late September moved moral issues aside. With the nation fixated on the economy, Obama opened up a large lead in the polls that seems destined to carry him to victory.
The conventional wisdom is not exactly accurate. (As is often the case, only Chris Matthews gets it right.) The economy did not displace moral issues: The economy is a moral issue. Providing for one’s family is a moral obligation, one that is suddenly uncertain. Buying a house and making the mortgage payments is a moral accomplishment, requiring discipline and delayed gratification. Faulty economic theories were part of the reason for the credit crunch, but greed has played its part. The anger felt on Main Street is not mere anti-elitism: The barons of high finance treated people’s hard-earned life savings as mere fodder for risk-taking. An economy that had been characterized by an idolatrous worship of the laws of the market suddenly sees the need for social solidarity in the form of government bailouts.
The economic crisis, in short, is more than an economic crisis. It is a cultural crisis, even a spiritual crisis. Years of easy credit and easy living had put a hefty materialistic id into most people’s identity. In the rush to acquire the latest technological gizmo from Ipods to Iphones, our culture defined success in terms of expensive stuff. The heroes of that culture had houses in the Hamptons, Mercedes-Benzes in the driveway, and lobbyists on K Street creating ever larger tax breaks for their companies. Magazines like Architectural Digest ceased to be about the aesthetics of architecture and instead became a kind of glossy consumer pornography, filled with photos of the latest, niftiest advances in creature comfort, none of it particularly beautiful.
Most importantly, an entire nation that had been led to believe that the good life could be charged ("Life takes Visa!" proclaimed the ad) suddenly had to ask itself what really mattered. The gods of Mammon have been pulled down from their pedestals. What will take their place?
Americans are not sure what they want, but they know they want a change and they have turned to the candidate who has made his name synonymous with change for 18 months of his long campaign. Obama has economic proposals at the ready, but it remains to be seen if he can help Americans answer this larger question: What matters? To him falls the task of re-negotiating the social contract, a task that is as enormous as it is infrequent. How will he inspire the country to take off in a new direction and what will that direction be? How can he lead the nation to meet not only its economic challenge, but the cultural and spiritual challenge posed by the economic downturn?
In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced similar socio-economic challenges and he responded with the New Deal, a phrase he unveiled in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. "What do the people of America want more than anything else?" FDR asked in that same speech. "To my mind, they want two things: work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it; and with work, a reasonable measure of security--security for themselves and for their wives and children. Work and security--these are more than words. They are more than facts. They are the spiritual values."
These more homely values are easily forgotten among the policy-making and policy-shaping classes. Candidates, their aides, their policy advisors and the media that cover them, all enjoy the kind of professional success that permits them not to worry about meeting the mortgage payments. But, Obama started to channel FDR last Saturday in St. Louis when he said, "It comes down to values – in America, do we simply value wealth, or do we value the work that creates it?" He should listen to Roosevelt’s fireside chats in the days and months ahead: Despite his patrician roots, FDR addressed the anxieties of all Americans with an almost unique mix of confidence and solidarity.
Abortion, gay marriage, immigration policy, our militaristic foreign policy and a host of other moral issues still matter to Americans. To some they are still decisive. But, for most Americans, their more primordial moral concern for home and hearth has come to the fore. Like FDR, Obama must find the political opportunity in the current crisis, and that opportunity is deeper than flipping Virginia and Ohio from red state to blue. It is time to re-draw the social contract to reflect values greater than acquisitiveness. It is time to create a tax structure and a regulatory scheme that rewards work other than the creation of "financial instruments" that bear a remarkable resemblance to a ponzi scheme. It is time to promote social solidarity through universal health insurance and better worker-retraining programs for those displaced by global competition. Obama must articulate this moral vision that animates his economic program, a moral vision that speaks to and for those in middle America who have been struggling for a long time.