Ask anyone about the Iraq War and they’ll tell you that it was a mistake. The war cost over a billion dollars, killed nearly 5,000 American soldiers and lasted over a decade, devastating American credibility and exacerbating sectarian strife in the Middle East. In 2008, Obama campaigned for and won the presidency with the inspirational foreign policy maxim “Don’t do stupid shit.” Mention Iraq, and critics will target Bush and his administration, the Republican Party and even the voters who re-elected Bush in 2004.
Now consider this scenario. Trump wins in 2016 (surprise!) much to the chagrin of the Party Establishment and all of his critics. America, for the next four years, becomes as bad as Iraq itself—it witnesses a crumbling infrastructure, widespread domestic upheaval and waning influence in the international arena. As with Bush in Iraq, Americans may feel justified to expand their criticism of Trump towards his supporters that voted him into office.
I bring up these two stories—one real, the other a real possibility—to talk about our intuitions about assigning blame. A Trump 2016 disaster would be different from a Bush in Iraq disaster in one key respect. Americans who re-elected Bush in 2004 may say in good faith that they were not voting for a prolonged and misguided war effort in Iraq. That at least appears to be a reasonable defense. Trump supporters, on the other hand, would have a much harder time explaining themselves. You knew exactly what you voted for, his critics will accuse his supporters.
It seems to me that Trump’s critics are not just unhappy with Trump’s supporters. They are more than unhappy—they want to assign blame. And it also seems to me that the blame they want to assign is not just political blame. Political blame entails assigning some sort of responsibility to the voters who, by making the choice to vote for one candidate over another, are directly or indirectly implicated by the candidate’s actions in office. The blame feels justified to impose because the elected candidate’s policies in fact turn out to be disastrous. Moral blame, however, goes one step further. It assigns the concept of wrongdoing to the choice that voters made. The voters didn’t just make a bad political choice. It’s not enough to say that their choices turned out to be regrettable. No—their choices itself were wrong. The voters too must be morally indicted with the candidate that they voted for.
The moral blame position I just considered may seem at best disconcerting and at worst outrageous. But I wonder: Why is it that our political views are up for debate but our moral views off-limits? Why are we comfortable with saying that Trump is a poor candidate, but less emboldened to claim that Trump’s voters are morally blameworthy for voting for him?
Notwithstanding the insistent uncle at your Thanksgiving dinner, political views are open to debate and empirical testing. Like hats, they are worn, changed and refitted over temporal and social conditions. What is the role of government? What obligation does it have towards its citizens? Who pays for what, and how much? These are questions that incite disagreement. But we can all agree to disagree, so the saying goes, so long as we listen and consider the other side.
Moral views are different; it would be strange to think of moral disagreement on “policy” grounds. Rather, morality is deeply personal and evokes convictions on the level of the cosmological. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? Many people wrestle with these questions and come to different conclusions. Each response is valid, we say. When someone talks about their faith with you, it’s proper to listen, not to interrogate. Absent mutual agreement, there is no room for debate. On this view, morality is something that is baked into our identity; its dismissal or scrutiny may feel like an assault on the dignity and personhood of the individual.
All of this is to say that moral discourse feels out of place in the political marketplace. One reason, as I have touched upon, is that moral questioning may resemble ad hominem attacks. Attacking the moral views of Trump’s supporters is tantamount to stooping down to their level, we might say. Let’s focus on the policies and leave the people alone. I myself have written that even Trump’s supporters are made in God’s image.
But is that satisfying? There’s no denying that our morality colors the lenses through which we see and understand our political institutions and leaders. How we perceive human nature, the role of authority and human agency all shape the positions that we take on every issue with a political nametag. Our moral worldview influences the choices we make, including our exercise of the civic duty to vote. So morality does matter.
I go back to my original question: Can Trump’s voters be morally blameworthy for a Trump 2016 disaster? I can’t say. But I think the idea is a serious one that cannot be dismissed simply for the sake of political correctness. To borrow a line from Tocqueville in Democracy in America, “when religion clings to the interests of the world, it becomes almost as fragile a thing as the powers of earth…it shares their fortunes and may fall with those transient passions.” Tocqueville saw the good in the separation of church and state, but he never said that they existed in opposite spheres. Religious or not, our moral convictions do affect, if not cling, to the interests of the world. That may mean that where transient passions fall, the moral decisions undergirding them may be put to question. At the very least, we need not think that our morals and our politics sit on separate aisles.