The Moralistic Style in American Politics

Greg Weiner

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On July 10, 1919, the chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Reverend Forrest Prettyman, opened the chamber's day on a world-historical note, praying that "the God of our fathers will lead us on and fulfill the great design in us as a Nation." After dispatching some routine business, Vice President Thomas Marshall introduced the guest whose appearance prompted the chaplain's millenarian tone: Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States and "first citizen of the world," fresh from his triumph at Versailles, the first chief executive since George Washington to visit the Senate and personally deliver a treaty.

His case for the Treaty of Versailles and its centerpiece, the League of Nations — the latter of which had already been under assault in the Senate for months — was mostly workmanlike. It was not until the peroration that Wilson's tenor did justice to the grandiosity of Prettyman's invocation. The cause of the war was now not mere national interest, as it had been when Wilson sought a declaration of war in 1917 on the grounds of Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare. The war was now a moral crusade:

It was our duty to go in, if we were indeed the champions of liberty and of right. We answered to the call of duty in a way so spirited, so utterly without thought of what we spent of blood or wrought out of the stuff of all that was heroic, that the whole world saw at last, in the flesh, in noble action, a great ideal asserted and vindicated, by a nation they had deemed material and now found to be compact of the spiritual forces that must free men of every nation from every unworthy bondage. It is thus that a new role and a new responsibility have come to this great nation that we honour and which we would all wish to lift to yet higher levels of service and achievement.

In his vaunted closing, Wilson declared that "[t]he stage [was] the hand of God....We cannot turn back. We can only go forward....The light streams upon the path ahead, and nowhere else."

Wilson was known as a moralizer of Olympian proportions. Robert Nisbet recounted in The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America that "[v]irtually everything [Wilson] touched became instantly transformed into an Armageddon." All the features of Wilson's moralism are evident in the 1919 Senate speech: There was no moral choice other than the path Wilson wanted to take, no prudential discretion; only the "light" on his path or the apparent darkness encasing any other. A prudential matter of statecraft became a moral crusade, with God called into its service. There was no limit to the blood or treasure that would be expended to succeed. That premise of limitless commitment was itself absurd. But even when the aim was purportedly achieved, the fact of success itself rechanneled moral energies to "yet higher" goals.

This is the essence of moralistic politics. It is different from politics oriented toward moral ends.


One of the most striking features of contemporary American politics is that political rhetoric is increasingly moralistic while the actual ability of governing systems to achieve moral ends is in decline. These are related phenomena: Moralistic politics is prone to stalemate because it disdains such instruments of effective political practice as barter and compromise. Its insistence on its own correctness, elevated to the urgency of the moral plane, makes compromise not merely imprudent but indefensible. Because of its tendency toward monomaniacal focus on single issues to the exclusion of all others, it cannot engage in horse-trading.

Where the politician sees shades of gray and operates in a world of contradictions and tensions, the moralist, hostile to nuance, perceives only darkness and light. This has a dual effect. First, it limits what is often the very value being proclaimed — liberty — since the moralist denies the variety of moral concerns and forecloses options other than his own. When moral questions are oversimplified, there is no room for liberty and the responsibility that should attend it. When imperatives are categorical, prudence is impossible. This dissolves liberty in favor of a one-dimensional and allegedly unimpeachable moral truth.

Second, cautious, partial steps toward moral ends cannot satisfy the moralizer because he operates in an environment in which more of the object in view is always better than less. Moralism cannot tolerate the fact, evident to James Madison in Federalist No. 10, that disagreement is "sown in the nature of man." The moralist thus has neither the capacity nor the desire for intellectual empathy, the ability to see an issue from another's point of view.

In short, for the moralist, unlike for the statesman, to "let justice be done though the heavens fall" is an acceptable tradeoff, for the options are identical: The pursuit of justice may bring down the heavens, but so will the persistence of injustice. The issues are always ultimate. The stakes of success and failure are the same.

Given the fact that people disagree, moralized politics is bound to fail except on those rare and transient occasions when a single moral vision possesses all branches of government. Moralism has no raw materials — you want this; I want that; here's a deal for some of each — with which to manufacture mutually acceptable outcomes. Indeed, there are no mutually acceptable outcomes; one choice is always right and the other is always wrong. Burke perceived the milieu: "Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards, and compromise as the prudence of traitors." In his essay "Morality versus Moralism in Foreign Policy," Ernest Lefever distinguished the two qualities: "Morality is a synonym for responsibility and moralism is a conscious or unconscious escape from accountability."

Daniel Patrick Moynihan expressed much the same sentiment in The Politics of a Guaranteed Income: "No one is innocent after the experience of governing. But not everyone is guilty." That was a remark about the inherent limitations of statecraft, about the politician's constant choice between competing moral ends. The moralist, by contrast, is always innocent, for he can always say moral ends would have awaited at the end of the path of light and goodness, which the prudent statesman had no choice but to reject.

The moralist is, in that sense, apolitical, hovering pristinely above and sneering down upon those faced with the hard choices of government. But it is more than that: By foreclosing meaningful moral deliberation, moralism is actively anti-political. Moynihan continued, "Kennedy would say over and again: to govern is to choose. Men who will not abide by this condition are less than what is required."

Reinhold Niebuhr grappled with similar questions of how to maintain moral conviction while accommodating political variety and human limitation. The moral statesman cannot remain above politics, Niebuhr wrote: "It is to be noted that in Hebraic religion the transcendent God is never an escape from the chaos of this world. This world is not meaningless, and it is not necessary to escape from it to another supramundane world in order to preserve an ultimate optimism."


Moralizing tends to exist in the eye of the beholder, characterizing moral appeals with which one does not agree. Its caricature is of the sanctimonious, finger-wagging politician or preacher. But some underlying characteristics of the phenomenon can be discerned.

The moralizer, as Lefever noted, is often concerned with a single end above all others. This is more than clarity of moral purpose. It is a single-minded obsession that refuses to see the need for choices. The actual statesman can almost never achieve one moral end without impairing another, so prudence must rank and balance them: A foreign policy that pursues a morally informed purpose may be impossible to achieve without the inescapable immoralities of war, the economic burdens in which the less fortunate will share, or the elevating of one alliance and the fraying of another. In domestic policy, the ongoing debate about pharmaceutical prices, for example, pits the economic welfare of the population with already-treatable conditions against the innovation on which a few people with rarer diseases depend.

Such choices are almost always the basic condition of politics. The difference is that the morally oriented statesman recognizes them — and can thus make tradeoffs and build coalitions to address the problem in question, even at the expense of the purity of his own soul. The moralizer, meanwhile, is sanctified by the certainty that his primary end is the only acceptable one. He is therefore oblivious to the subordinate sacrifices that are usually necessary to achieve it. The metaphor of war, which pits friends against enemies and thereby delegitimizes opposition, is common even when applied to problems like cancer or poverty that resist conquering. Wilson, in a speaking tour before his 1912 presidential campaign, declared in Denver:

No man can sit down and withhold his hands from the warfare against wrong and get peace out of his acquiescence. The most solid and satisfying peace is that which comes from this constant spiritual warfare, and there are times in the history of nations when they must take up the crude instruments of bloodshed in order to vindicate spiritual conceptions. For liberty is a spiritual conception, and when men take up arms to set other men free, there is something sacred and holy in the warfare. I will not cry "Peace" so long as there is sin and wrong in the world.

Actual warfare is sometimes necessary, but it is never holy. As Niebuhr noted, neither is an abstract devotion to peace at all costs: "When the Church proclaims the love commandment to the world as the law of God, it must guard against the superficial moralism of telling the world that it can save itself if men will only stop being selfish and learn to be loving."

It bears observing that in Wilson's formulation, "spiritual," as opposed to territorial, warfare is "constant." A war that does not end until the world is rid of "sin and wrong" can never relent. The moralizer who attempts to attain the fullness of his ends rejects the doctrine of original sin and often does so, as Wilson's case shows, in the name of Christian piety.

Wilson was speaking well before World War I. His reference was less to literal warfare than to the cause of social progress, especially with respect to economic issues. Hence another feature of the moralizer: the proclivity to cast ordinary political choices in Manichaean terms. Senator John McCain supplies a contemporary example. Just as President Trump sees the world in terms of strength and weakness, McCain's tendency was to sift information — on campaign finance, tobacco policy, and a host of other issues — through a filter of good and evil. George Will reported during the 2008 presidential campaign that McCain, the Republican nominee, had responded to a briefing on a complicated financial issue by inquiring: "So, who is the villain?"

The candidates vying for the presidency today, including the office's current occupant, tend to cast questions about unemployment, opioid addiction, health care, trade, and more not as problems to be solved but rather as epic battles between the true beating heart of America and its adversaries, which are almost always faceless and nefarious abstractions: Wall Street firms, foreign governments, immigrants, the "1%." For the moralizer, a problem never simply occurs. A scoundrel always causes it. Mere problems admit debate as to the most prudent solution. One's opponent in a battle royal, by contrast, must be destroyed.

The moralist apparently must work in abstractions. Actual moral reasoning requires a precision about ends and means that is willing to name the things under debate. In order to clarify the available options, one must be willing to say something is this and not that. The moralist dodges this responsibility because it entails hard choices, shrouding moral reasoning in abstractions instead. Daniel Mahoney notes the consequent irony that "relativism coexists with limitless moralism. This is the most striking feature of the modern 'moral' order."

For Raymond Aron, the working statesman did not have this luxury. He thus wrote that Max Weber overlooked a "reasonable politics based on a balanced analysis of the social order because he wanted to reserve the rights of the ethics of conviction, to elevate the pacifist or revolutionary trade unionist who is unconcerned with the consequences of his acts, to the same level of dignity as the responsible statesman...."

There are, of course, villains in politics. There are evil empires, greedy interests, and corrupt politicians. But it is more common for moral results to be attained through coalitions of individuals or interests who each possess pieces of the truth. It is more common still for issues to resist definition in moral terms at all. Whether tax rates should be higher or lower, regulations should be more or fewer, or troops should be deployed to here or there, are typically prudential judgments obscured rather than illuminated by moralism. Outside of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the question of where to locate a boys' camp is rarely a moral issue.

Similarly, moralizers tend to ignore or reject the nuances that characterize the bulk of political choices. Because the moralizer sees the world in terms of righteousness and malice, he is likely to exhort rather than persuade. Perhaps most ominously, such issues, like Wilson's "spiritual warfare," tend to be measured in abstractions rather than concrete consequences. As Burke noted, a politics of abstraction readily, even enthusiastically, sacrifices actual individuals to ethereal goals.


To oppose moralism is not to endorse nihilism. It is both possible and desirable for politics to be oriented toward moral ends. A moral politics is more than merely transactional — the transactions must advance moral goals — but less than crusading. Its tendency is to rely on inspiration rather than exhortation and on persuasion rather than admonition.

This Aristotelian or Thomist orientation toward moral ends is accompanied by a measured confidence in their rightness. The moral politician is not enfeebled by self-doubt, but he is likelier to approach issues gradually, drawing on tradition not out of mere reverence for it but out of humility as well: that is, for the Burkean reason that custom accumulates more wisdom than even a wise individual possesses. Madison famously wrote, "Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob." The morally oriented statesman understands that even if he is a Socrates, he will still benefit from the accumulated wisdom of the Assembly and the customs of the city. He is satisfied with halting progress toward moral aims and is willing to work with those with whom he disagrees, even intently, to achieve it.

Abraham Lincoln was the foremost American exemplar of moral rather than moralistic politics. He spoke in clear but also welcoming moral terms. His 1842 Temperance Address was a model of moderate moral discourse, advising that alcoholics be weaned from drink in "accents of entreaty and persuasion, diffidently addressed by erring man to an erring brother" rather than "the thundering tones of anathema and denunciation."

This formulation is significant, for Lincoln's moral judgment was confessedly limited: The "erring brother" was to be reached by the equally "erring man," who was also, suggestively, "diffident" in his attempts to persuade. When his Second Inaugural later spoke of the Northern cause in the Civil War, Lincoln called for "firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right," by which he meant that only a divine perspective could comprehend the right in its full dimensions. This is the statesman operating amid competing values and the limits of human reason: Our cause should be firm because it is right, but we should be humble rather than zealous about it.

Lincoln, who saw the survival of the Union as a predicate to ending slavery, could thus work with views that were different from his own, and even objectively reprehensible, in order to advance his long-term moral aims. He told his friend Joshua Speed in 1855 that the people of the North "crucif[ied] their [moral] feelings" about slavery to preserve the Union. Lincoln's First Inaugural declared his intention to enforce the cruel Fugitive Slave Clause. His plans for gradual, compensated emancipation — according to which full freedom for enslaved people would have taken until 1900 — persisted well into the war. Could Lincoln win a primary among candidates vying to outbid each other ideologically today? One suspects that he would propose gradual emancipation and lose primary voters to the first candidate to endorse immediate emancipation, who would in turn be outdone by another.

The moral clarity that both Moynihan and Ronald Reagan expressed about the Soviet Union provides a contemporary counterpart. The diplomacy of the former and the statecraft of the latter were shot through with morality but not with moralism. They were confident in their rightness but prudent in their measures. Reagan could, with lucid moral conviction, call on Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" without taking fire and sword to Berlin to do it himself.

Martin Luther King, Jr., also illustrates the point. His politics were clearly morally rooted, but the tone of his rhetoric sought to appeal to better angels while actually welcoming new allies into his movement. The "inescapable network of mutuality" to which he referred in the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" both acknowledged and endorsed political life with competing ends. In comparing adherents of civil disobedience to Socratic gadflies, he indicated that his method was persuasion rather than dogmatism: The goal was to "help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood." The immorality of racism was indisputable, but King's ambition was to enlighten rather than stigmatize its proponents.

A morally informed statesman will not hesitate to call evil by its name but will use that label economically and resist its application to ordinary problems. Indeed, unlike the Progressive movement's aspiration to "scientific legislation," a morally oriented statesman will oppose the temptation to believe that all political problems have obviously "right" answers that can be ascertained by technical means. Moral judgment requires prudence, which — far from being merely calculative — is a cardinal virtue.

The moral politician can also distinguish prudentially between the immediate need and the long-term good. As Lefever also observed, the moralist always lives in the urgency of the here and now: Because his priority is morally infused, taking it slowly is not only inadvisable but positively unjust. Moralism is neither anchored in the past nor oriented toward the future. It repudiates custom and prudence alike. Moralism thrives on the evanescent now.

It is important, again, not to confuse the inherent opacity of political activity with either an empty nihilism or a desiccated positivism. The moral statesman is not a Hobbesian who believes justice is what the sovereign says it is. Nor is he resigned to mere realism. Rather, he seeks what Niebuhr tried to capture in The Irony of American History:

The real question is whether a religion or a culture is capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than "happiness."

The moral statesman has principles and seeks to advance them, subject to the limitations of human nature. And this is the crucial point: He is likelier to succeed in that pursuit than is the moralist.


The problem with moralism is not that sanctimony is aesthetically distasteful. The problem is not simply moralism's arrogant certitude or its propensity to demonize and overreach. Rather, the central difficulty is this: In the actual chaos and complexity of a diverse society's politics, attaining moral results requires a moral prudence and humility that the moralist lacks.

Consider the example of climate change. Assume, as the scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows, that the problem is serious and substantially caused by human behavior. The dimensions of the problem are clearly moral. But the reality is that skeptics remain, and both enactment of and compliance with the assertive measures required to address climate change entails convincing the skeptics and inviting them into a broad coalition. Stigmatizing them as corrupt or as the dupes of debased interests is counterproductive at best.

Worse still is dismissing contrary views or behaviors — skepticism of the science or driving an SUV or failing to forgo jet travel — as immoral rather than arguing they are imprudent or unwise. The accused tend not to take moral counsel from their accusers. A puritan view of climate change may feel righteous. It may actually be righteous. But it does not make converts. It repels them.

Similarly, both President Trump's supporters and detractors have tended to assume a moralizing posture. Many of his evangelical Christian supporters see Trump as the contemporary fulfillment of the biblical story of King Cyrus, the unbelieving ruler who nonetheless freed the Jews. Trump, in parallel, is regarded as the personally corrupt ruler who restores public virtue. The problem with the Cyrus analogy is that, on its reasoning, to oppose Trump is to contradict God. If Trump's critics are diabolical, it may be a sin rather than a virtue to work with them even on issues of mutual interest unrelated to the president's behavior.

With respect to morality and moralism, the issue is not that Trump is personally lacking in virtue. Politics does not rise or fall on the private righteousness of leaders. Far from it: There are ample examples in American politics of a pious leader failing precisely because he could not bear the moral choices inherent to the political enterprise. Wilson's 1889 invocation of the 24th Psalm in claiming that democratic politics had no place "except for him who 'hath clean hands and a pure heart'" could have served as a prophecy of the failure of the Treaty of Versailles, on which Wilson refused to compromise. It is also absurd: No one in politics has "clean hands," and only the moralizer aloof from politics can plausibly purport to maintain them.

Wilson, son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, was by all accounts personally religious, even if his racism and self-righteousness fell short of biblical morality. Similarly, Jimmy Carter was nothing if not personally pious. In The Power Game: How Washington Works, Hedrick Smith recalled that Carter, who had called the energy issue "the moral equivalent of war," refused to work the tawdry levers of power in Washington to pass his energy plan, assuming instead that its sheer rationality would carry the day. This is a politics in which solutions to problems are binary — right and wrong — rather than a balance between competing interests.

For their part, Trump's detractors have often focused less on issues with moral content but subject to prudential disagreement — such as constitutional norms — than on anathematizing supporters of the president, who is seen as so self-evidently unfit that only the corrupt or stupid could support him. This, again, is hostile to the kinds of alliances that make politics possible.

So-called "cancel culture," by which those who do not conform to prevailing, if transient, moral fashions are denounced and denied participation even in unrelated facets of society, displays similar characteristics. The person who disagrees is not a fellow citizen whose views are worthy of respect. He is not someone whose dissent could be a means of learning or even of sharpening and reinforcing one's own views. Instead, dissidents are, as Justice Scalia said of the Supreme Court's treatment of skeptics of same-sex marriage in the Windsor case, adjudged to be "hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race."

To be condemned as a bigot, even when standards of bigotry are changing so rapidly it would be impossible for even the most "woke" always to comply, is to be cast out of the moral community. Such castoffs are unlikely candidates for evangelism. They are likelier to respond to the moral lash by lashing out themselves. Cancel culture maintains the purity of prevailing views at the expense of expanding their appeal.

Moral politics, by contrast, is self-confident in its aims but never so certain of its ends as to expatriate dissenters. A question follows: Can a modern democracy reward a less inspiring morality while discouraging a more exhilarating moralism?


In some sense the question seems to answer itself. The nation has had moral leaders, Lincoln foremost among them. It has seen unbending moralists — John Adams comes to mind — run aground on their own virtue. But contemporary democracy feeds off enthusiasms. That is partly because of the structure of American primary elections, which privileges the most partisan candidates. But moralism is not confined to American politics or its institutions.

The difficulty may be the crowded nature of the media environment, which punishes — or perhaps simply has no way to register — moderation. At the first Democratic presidential debate in 2019, several candidates expressed a desire to abolish private health insurance. One, former congressman John Delaney, noted that 100 million Americans liked their private insurance and offered the modest suggestion that Democrats "should be the party that keeps what's working and fixes what's broken." Attention during the debate and after it was allotted accordingly. At the second debate, Senator Elizabeth Warren responded to Delaney's caution regarding her grandiose plans: "You know, I don't understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for." But an essential part of a president's job is to distinguish between what can and cannot be done.

Moralism sells if only because moralism gets noticed. Its fervor can break through the clutter. But it also releases dopamine into the political system: Moralism feels good to the moralizer and his flock alike. Ever more democratizing reforms — Democrats, for example, recently rid themselves of "superdelegates," party insiders whose incentive in nominating contests was to win the subsequent election — that empower the demos rather than mediating its views encourage reliance on moralism to garner public attention.

It is possible that the enthusiasm among Trump's base for his vulgarity — so often contrasted with "political correctness" — represents a backlash against moralism. The risk is that it does so at the expense of a moral politics, because this politics has no end but winning. Trump's foreign-policy realism — his coddling of Kim Jong Un, for instance — lacks the understanding of a Reagan that one may have to accept moral tradeoffs to achieve moral ends, for it remains unclear what end Trump has in sight. In contemporary politics, the alternative to moralism may be a politics that is neither moral nor immoral but simply amoral, its transactions untouched by such considerations. And Trump, who once called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "a nasty, vindictive, horrible person," is not above moralizing invective himself.

The soulless politics of winners and losers, of strong and weak, seems to be the reigning alternative to moralism, and for the moment, it has a leg up. Given the choice between an insufferable moralism and shunning moral discourse altogether, Americans seem to prefer the latter. But if that is the choice, it is a false one. America has a heritage of moral rather than moralistic leadership to which it can recur. Understanding the difference between moralism and morality — the costs of the former and the virtues of the latter — is the first step toward reclaiming a politics of moral ends.

Greg Weiner is provost and vice president for academic affairs and associate professor of political science at Assumption College, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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