How Howard Dean Debates Liberal Moral Superiority With David Brooks

In the Trump era, tribalism bests morality.

Do liberals hold the moral high ground? Samuel Lahoz

In the Trump era, tribalism bests morality. The party of Lincoln elected a reality television star who recently endorsed a senate candidate accused of molesting teenagers. Meanwhile, two Democratic leaders resigned this week after dozens of sexual assault allegations. Conservatism’s underlining principles of economic empowerment have fallen to deep state conspiracy, while liberalism’s social egalitarianism is subverted into media soundbites. As both parties reconcile their roles amid a political landscape upended by populism and global networks, liberalism (long touted as the voice of reason) faces an existential crisis over whether its morals can withstand an inherently immoral climate. On Thursday night at the Kaufman Center in Manhattan, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Princeton professor Robert George, and former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry debated whether the left still holds the moral high ground.

Moderated by ABC News’ John Donvan, the nonpartisan Intelligence Squared U.S. hosted the tag-team spectacle. Arguing for the motion were Dean and Harris-Perry; arguing against were Brooks and George. Though the speakers occasionally hurled partisan zingers at Roy Moore, Bill Clinton and Al Franken, the evening was mostly a nuanced discussion on morality and liberalism.

Melissa Harris-Perry delivers opening remarks. Samuel Lahoz

America’s Defining Virtue

Howard Dean: “There are three. The first is hope, the second is equality, and the third is the rule of law.”

Melissa Harris-Perry: “America’s defining virtue is that despite entrenched racial and gender inequality, this place has been home to generations of women of color whose very lives embody the greatest aspirations the country has set out for itself.”

David Brooks: “Well, in 2015 I wrote a book saying humility was the most important and defining virtue. And then the 2016 election happened and I figured, ‘Well, that worked.”

Robert George: “E Pluribus Unum. From many, one.’  We do not share a common religion. We do not share a common ethnicity. We’re many religions. We’re many races.  We’re many ethnicities. But from that we have become one people. Despite our many differences we’re one people. We’ve been able to maintain civic friendship and sustain and experiment in ordered liberty that was unknown prior to the American founding.”

Conditions of Morality

Melissa Harris-Perry: “We actually share, as a nation, a civic religion that is laid out by our Framers as an aspirational morality, that is instantiated in America’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence… It is an aspirational document, but a moral one for certain. So, we take this as the standard of American civic morality by which both liberalism and conservatism must be judged. Human freedom, meaningful equality, the cultivation of human flourishing, and substantive popular governance.”

David Brooks: “Politics is no longer really about big government versus small government… We’re at a different moment in political history. And what we’re facing around the world is the threat of neither liberalism or conservatism, but of global populism… And if you think you’re on the moral high ground, morally superior to us, we can’t [compromise]. And Steve Bannon has a divided enemy, and Steve Bannon will win.”

Howard Dean: “The core difference between liberals and conservatives is that we look forward, we have hope, we are not clinging to the past, and we are not fearful… I think, certainly at this time in our history, it’s what you do, not what you say. The fact is, on the record, what is going on in the Republican party is not the high ground.”

Robert George: “Neither side today has the moral high ground and that’s because both sides have permitted themselves to descend into dogmatism, ideological tribalism, contempt for people who disagree with them, an unwillingness to listen and consider that they might be able to learn something from people who have a different view…And the crony capitalism we have today is the work of both conservatives and liberals.  No one has taken up the challenge of undoing it. And when someone does, then that person is entitled to claim the moral high ground.”

Morality in Policy

Melissa Harris Perry: “We have empirical evidence that when Republicans control state legislatures, we have seen a shrinking of the capacity for popular governance because we have seen the imposition of voting rights restrictions that make it harder for people to vote. We know that across 35 years of Republican presidencies, African-American unemployment went up by a net of 13.7 percentage points. And across 22 years of Democratic presidencies, it fell by 8 percentage points.”

David Brooks: “[We] need covenantal relationships and neighborhoods and civic institutions.  And that’s what conservatives really pay attention to and bring to the table.  And it’s in working together that we actually have a chance of increasing social mobility, not with one having the higher ground than the other.”

Howard Dean: “It is also true that liberal social policy sometimes blow up. They may be well-intended and they don’t work.  And that’s absolutely true, as true as it is with conservative social policies… I respect deeply people who make the case that abortion is murder and that it shouldn’t be allowed. But I don’t agree with it and I don’t appreciate people like the guy from Pennsylvania who had to resign who got his mistress pregnant and then wanted to have an abortion is running a Right to Life. ”

Robert George: “The fundamental work that the primordial department of health education and welfare is the family and institutions of civil society…And what we have to do is find ways to empower those institutions of civil society.  And what we have to avoid is undermining them with policies, however well intentioned, that do undermine personal responsibility, that create dependency.”

Morality in the Trump Era

David Brooks: “Over the past 18 months, the Republican party has been hijacked by a reactionary party. And reactionary is not conservative. The people I grew up with who read National Review, read the Weekly Standard commentary, William F. Buckley, Edmund Burke were appalled [with Trump].  And so, it’s complicated by that fact.  And if you want me to be harshly critical of the people who are voting for Roy Moore, I think they’re betraying their faith in order to try to save it. And they’re trying to use means justify the ends philosophy.”

Melissa Harris Perry: “You were not personally responsible, but if folks who are good people do not take responsibility for the ways in which this happened, then it’s not acceptable to just say, ‘Oh, man, that’s not us,’ any more than it is for liberals to do that when really horrifying things happen in the Democratic party…Republicans don’t get to wash their hands of this Republican party.”

Robert George: “This wasn’t Trump running as some sort of anti-government libertarian.  He was running with a whole new idea, claiming that he represented forgotten people who really did — in Michigan and in Ohio and in Pennsylvania and in West Virginia and all through Appalachia and elsewhere — feel as though they had been left behind.  They had been forgotten by progressives — some of them voted for Obama, remember — by progressives, as well as by conservatives.  It was the establishment of both parties that Trump ran against, and if there is responsibility and liability, it rests with both parties and with both ideological movements.”

Howard Dean: “Neo-Nazis exist, and they organized the riot in Charlottesville that caused a death.  So, the question is, how do you stand up against that?  Are there people who get shouted down who shouldn’t?  Yes. Are there people who get shouted down who should?  Yes. If you are Milo Yiannopoulous, or you are Ann Coulter, and your only reason for going on campus is to insult people, identify every undocumented person so they get kicked out of school, there is no academic value for that whatsoever.”

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt asks a question. Samuel Lahoz


Brooks and George bested the opposition by convincing more of the audience to vote against the motion after hearing arguments from both sides.

“I thought Brooks was great because he reframed the questions,” Dean told Observer. “He’s very sympathetic.”

During the Q&A segment, an audience member asked about the thousands of foreigners killed by the military-industrial complex under both Republican and Democratic administrations. His question went ignored as the debaters headed to an open bar at Rosa Mexicano with leading reporters, lawyers, and academics. Even in the age of Trump, both sides agree that certain topics are still off-limits.

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How Howard Dean Debates Liberal Moral Superiority With David Brooks