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Alan Grayson Speaks the Language of Morality, Causes Mass Panic

Matt Yglesias wrote yesterday:

Representative Alan Grayson’s statement that the Republican plan for health care amounts to “don’t get sick” and if you do “die quickly” probably doesn’t meet a test of literal accuracy. . . . But so what? The idea of a hubbub about this is absurd.

I think the real issue—and the real import—of Grayson’s statement is that it involved breaking one of the unspoken rules of modern American politics. The rule is that conservatives talk about their causes in stark, moralistic terms and progressives don’t. Instead, progressives talk about our causes in bloodless technocratic terms.

This isn’t a terribly new insight (for instance, Drew Westen attracted a lot of attention with a book about it two years ago), but it’s accurate nonetheless –and it’s a big part of why Grayson’s remarks have drawn such disproportionate condemnation from people who routinely give Republicans a pass for similar rhetoric.

Having written some on the subject myself, I disagree with Matt’s rationale for the discrepancy ("substantially more people identify as conservatives than identify as liberals. Consequently, progressive politicians are at pains to describe their proposals as essentially pragmatic and non-ideological, which doesn’t lend itself to moralism"). Plenty of Democratic politicians’ tics can be ascribed to an inordinate fear of offending non-liberal voters, but I don’t think this is one of them.

Instead, my sense is that progressives approach politics from an essentially rational perspective — "What solves the problem?" — whereas conservatives tend to think more in terms of respecting authority, if not outright opposition to the notion of solving problems (which, for many politicians, is encouraged by their fealty to the special interests responsible for causing the problems). As I wrote here back in 2007:

Too often, Democrats and other progressives treat politics as a courtroom or a classroom, where the most comprehensively documented and tightly reasoned case will carry the day. While that may appeal to our way of thinking, sadly it just isn’t so for everyone; many voters simply don’t have the time or the inclination to pay that much attention.

And as I wrote even longer ago (in 2006), I think the ultimate goal for progressives should be to reframe the pragmatic value of pursuing real solutions to real problems as being just as morally grounded as (and, in fact, more genuinely so than) the latest sanctimonious Republican posturing.

With a president who often seems unwilling to say "I’m right, and you’re wrong" — indeed, who consciously positions himself as a walking advertisement for calm, dispassionate politics — that can be difficult. But not everyone has to approach the problem the same way; you can have "good cops" like Obama who promote a rational, problem-solving mentality as well as "bad cops" who show that passion and moral clarity are not exclusively conservative characteristics.

So, the specifics of what Grayson said aside, it’s good to see a Democratic politician willing to inject some raw emotion and a sense of morality into our discourse. It’s a start.

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Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (