Who in America has moral authority?

It’s hard to come up with names.

Thanks to Andy Sabl’s initiative, last night I not only got to hear Adam Michnik – leader of KOR and one of the central figures of the overthrow of Communism in Poland, and now the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza – but also to go to dinner with him afterwards. Too often, hearing and meeting one of the heroes of one’s youth is a formula for disappointment. Not so in this case: as a speaker Michnik is acute, engaging, and funny, and as a dinner-table companion he is completely fascinating.

At dinner, MIchnik asked an excellent question to which neither Andy nor I could provide a satisfactory answer: “Who in contemporary America has moral authority?” (I took this to mean both “moral authority you are prepared to accept” and “enough public standing to be an actual force.” Tom Schelling, for example, has the intellectual force, the moral clarity, and the nerve, but not the notoriety, nor the impulse to seek it out.) I could come up with only one name: Barack Obama. Could it really be true that there is no other political leader, journalist, academic, religious figure, business leader, trade unionist currently active with the stature to summon people to action based on moral authority as opposed to self-interest?

It seems to me that the field wasn’t always so empty. Adlai Stevenson had authority, and William Fitts Ryan. So did Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite. And the civil-rights pantheon: Martin Luther King of course, but also Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Ted Hesburgh.

Consider the floor open for nominations.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

88 thoughts on “Who in America has moral authority?”

  1. Jimmy Carter, perhaps.

    Ralph Nader, may have had, except for obvious reasons he does not.

    Bill Clinton could have had, except for obvious reasons he does not.

    Colin Powell could have had, except for obvious reasons he does not.

    It is somewhat amusing to think that the closest current equivalent to Edward R. Murrow is Jon Stewart.

  2. US society has such a weak civil society–and is too deeply polarized–for there to be any moral authorities recognized by a reasonable majority. There are minor moral authorities that will be recognized by various factions but not the entire population.

    Moral authorities with some actual morals but no authority: Jimmy Carter, Paul Krugman.

    Moral authority with limited morals but some authority: Bill Clinton.

    Moral authority with no morals but with authority: Rush Limbaugh.

    No sane person would accept Limbaugh's moral authority, but there are many, many insane Americans who quite happily accept him as a moral authority.

  3. Oprah Winfrey comes pretty close. For people who accept it, Al Gore's authority strikes me as a moral one, as does Jimmy Carter's. Elie Wiesel. Tom Brokaw.

  4. Darek, if you have to ask …

    Are there no remaining icons of yesteryear, however superannuated? Aren't Pete Seeger and Bob Moses still alive and (somewhat) active, each in in their own ways?

  5. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett? No saints, but neither lives a life of wretched excess, both advocate policies that hurt them and help the hoi palloi, and they fund aid for diseases the world ignores.

  6. Interesting question. Of course, there are going to fit the bill to varying degrees. Many have specific ranges of influence. Jon Stewart comes to mind for the young left.

    But for an all-around role model I don't think you can do better than Obama. Even if you disagree with him ideologically, for a politician he seems incredibly sophisticated and wise. But he's a politician. In order to bring people together you have to sacrifice brutal honesty.

    Yet even there look at how many people seem to have soured on him. In the end how much does having the moral authority even matter?

  7. Warren. The reasons aren't obvious to me. Please explain. Or do you just make a habit of saying things you can't explain.

  8. Darek, for clarification: is it your contention that Nader never had any moral authority (I've seen people make this argument), or that he hasn't destroyed what moral authority he once might have had?

  9. I took this to mean both “moral authority you are prepared to accept” and “enough public standing to be an actual force.”

    If public standing is required, then it is not surprising that present day America comes up short in the moral authority department. Indeed, moral authority and public standing come close to being mutually exclusive. Once one questions the status quo from a moral basis the powers-that-be do their best to marginalize the questioner, precisely to deny him/her a wider audience. Think of congress members like Barbara Lee. Think of government officials like Brooksley Born and Elizabeth Warren. Think of journalists like Ashley Bansfield. Each of these people made and/or continue to make principled stands against business as usual in Washington DC. I'd bet a sizable amount of money that not two out of one hundred people, chosen at random, would be able to identify any of these women.

    By the way, Barack Obama???!!! Really? They guy who claims he can assassinate pretty much anyone he wants as long as the target can be shoe-horned into enemy combatant status? The guy who claims he can indefinitely detain pretty much anyone he wants without due process? The guy who thinks the incidental deaths of several hundred innocent Pashtun civilians is an acceptable cost in order to demonstrate his foreign policy street cred? The guy who thinks the people responsible for nearly obliterating the world economy are "savvy businessmen"? The guy who appears to think it's hunky dory to allow these same people to remain in power with little or no new meaningful regulatory oversight? I could go on–and on–but this is getting depressing.

    Moral authority…I don't think this term means what you apparently think it means.

  10. Warren,

    I've made no contention (although I have my opinions), but apparently its absurd that I have to ask why it is obvious that Nader doesn't have any moral authority he could have once had… I asked for an explanation, or just for the original commenter to expound on that. Apparently you agree with the sentiment… what is it thats so obvious?

  11. The list of voices most dangerous to would-be authoritarians could include Obama, Oprah, Buffett, Bill Gates, George Clooney, Letterman.

    Koppel had the weight, and could maybe get it back. Don't know what happened there.

    Rather is gone, perhaps dispatched, and these others should watch their backs.

  12. Hey, this 12th comment was there, then gone. Comment counter stayed at 12 for a while, but is now back down to 11. Was this too inane?

    Anonymous says:

    February 25, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    The list of voices most dangerous to would-be authoritarians could include Obama, Oprah, Buffett, Bill Gates, George Clooney, Letterman.

    Koppel had the weight, and could maybe get it back. Don’t know what happened there.

    Rather is gone, perhaps dispatched, and these others should watch their backs.

  13. The list of voices most dangerous to would-be American authoritarians could include Obama, Oprah, Buffett, Bill Gates, George Clooney, Letterman.

    Koppel had the weight, and could maybe get it back. Don’t know what happened there.

    Rather is gone, perhaps dispatched, and these others should watch their backs.The list of voices most dangerous to would-be American authoritarians

  14. I'll fill in for Matt: Ralph Nader's wilful delivery of the Presidency to a dangerous lunatic in 2000 wrecked any moral authority he might have had. Having interacted with various parts of the Public Citizen empire in the 1970s, I've always considered Nader a scoundrel – pretty much a pseudo-left version of a televangelist – but that was pretty much a minority view until 2000.

  15. I suppose having been a youngish 25 years old at the time offers some excuse for political delusion, but my vote for Nader was ill-conceived. Although living in Portland, OR I didn't really effect much.

    Today I see too many people suffer the same misunderstanding of politics. The Democrats are only as liberal as their most conservative members. This has proven true on health care, and will continue to dog them as long as there remains a large portion of Americans who don't understand political philosophy well enough to not be caught in an endless sway between the rhetorical legerdemain of focus group-tested messaging and Pavlovian talking points.

    The American middle is a morass of ignorant nonchalance, dragging us all down to its common denominator of political and social stagnation.

  16. Mark,

    Your 'assessment' is considering what happened after the fact. Sure, even though I didn't vote for Nader, I can see (now, conveniently) that only if he conceded earlier, things may have been different. But I know you are a smarter person than to indict someone along these lines. I still am in favor in at least some of the policies he's advocated – which not even Obama (your answer to the question), whos now backing down on a consumer protection agency (just an example) has been able to defend.

  17. Just as a follow up as to your personal experience with Nader, that may be so – I haven't found evidence to think of him as a scoundrel. Do link me to it or point me in the direction of that evidence though, I would seriously like to see what you're talking about.

  18. I'm with Mark.

    Also, Nader is said to be a horrible administrator who can't smoothly run a ten-man team.

    Over the years, he drove most of his closest associates first crazy, then away.

    Had the heavens parted in Nov 2000 and the Hand of God Almighty directly given the Presidency of the US to Ralph Nader, it would have been a disaster almost as bad as what really happened.

    And _anyone_ who thinks that the Presidency of the US should be his first ever elective office is probably unfit for the job. *cough*Jesse Jackson*cough*

    Policy statements are important, but they're not everything.

  19. Right. So there are rumors to determine what would have been with Nader. Again no evidence. I'm not a Nader advocate per-say, I simply agree with what he's said he is behind in terms of policy. To say he sucks because he cost Gore the presidency doesn't say much as to why he sucks. If Gore was so much better than Bush – at the time – why did he need Naders' votes to win? Instead of scape-goating someone because of events that took place after the fact (if Bush won and 9/11 never happened, as an example, I doubt Nader would receive as much bad press) why not try a man on the policies or issues he claims to advocate/represent).

    The question is moral authority – one idea is to have someone like Nader concede his nomination as president to someone else (in spite of what he believes) who he is running against and that somehow, would represent moral authority?

    Get real. No one here has demonstrated they have even understood the concept, as was eluded to in a previous comment.

  20. A handy summary on Nader is "Make You Ralph," http://www.tnr.com/article/make-you-ralph


    Nader called the 1970 Clean Air Act "disastrous". In 1980, he told Rolling Stone "The two-party system, by all criteria, is bankrupt–they have nothing of any significance to offer the voters, so a lot of voters say why should they go and vote for Tweedledum and Tweedledee." In 1981, according to The Washington Post, he said "Reagan is going to breed the biggest resurgence in nonpartisan citizen activism in history." In his 2002 memoir, Crashing the Party, Nader alleges that Bill Clinton leaked the Gennifer Flowers adultery revelations himself to avoid having to address Nader's agenda.

    "In the waning days of the 2000 election, some of Nader's campaign advisers urged him to concentrate on uncontested states, like New York and California … Instead, he chose a whirlwind tour of battleground states, campaigning in Pennsylvania and Florida, where votes would be harder to come by but more consequential to the outcome of the race. Liberals assume Nader tried to maximize his vote total without regard to how it affected Bush and Gore. The truth is that he actively sought to help Bush, even at the expense of his own vote total."

  21. Thanks, Doug, for the clear, concise, unbiased, non-ranting view as to why Nader sucks. The title didn't even give anything away.

    Never mind I asked. I see now a legitimate discussion on Nader is wishful thinking.

  22. Rick Warren.

    The problem with moral authority is that one of the really polarizing questions in America is "which are the most important moral questions?" Most of the nominees hear are self-discrediting for half the population; so are the moral authorities on the right. For many of us (yes, definitely me) Randall Terry is near the top of the list.

  23. "I could come up with only one name: Barack Obama."

    Thank god for the laptop that I'd already swallowed the tea. That's a demonstration of why, right off the bat, we can exclude from consideration anybody in high elective office: The political element of the judgment will essentially always guarantee that members of one party will attribute unrealistically high levels of moral authority to a prominent politician, while members of the opposing party will err on the opposite side of the scale.

    "Politics ain't beanbag." Which is to say, the normal practice of politics in this country has elements to it that would, in any other context, be regarded as heinous. Your average politician wouldn't qualify, morally, to babysit. You've got to grade on one hell of a curve to pretend otherwise. (You think differently? Ask a media outlet what terms they require for selling airtime to a politician. Cash on the barrel head, because you WILL be stiffed otherwise.)

    Hell, I think Rep. Paul is pretty nifty, the only member of Congress who actually votes against legislation he likes because he thinks it's unconstitutional. Shows some moral authority, but I'd never have the cast iron gall to propose him for something like this.

    Secondly, since one side of the ideological spectrum essentially views business as a form of corruption to be barely tolerated, it's pretty much impossible for somebody in business to achieve high levels of public authority, too. If you're a businessman, you're going to be seen as scum by Democrats unless you're a Soros, bankrolling them.

    Richard Feynman would have been a good candidate, when he was alive. Look for somebody in an area of science that lacks much political salience. Hard to find one, with politics metastasizing all over society, though.

  24. Just to add to what has already been said about Nader, after it was apparent what he had done in 2000, he went into a public state of denial. Anybody can make a mistake, but moral leaders have to acknowledge when they mess up, and Nader couldn't.

  25. And IIRC people like Molly Ivins were publicly pointing out that Nader's run would have the effect of flipping a few marginal states to the GOP. (again, IIRC) she publicly offered to help him get votes in deep Red or deep Blue states, so that his party could qualify for federal matching funds, in return for him shutting down his efforts in marginal states. He refused, and (again, IIRC) publicly stated that he didn't mind tossing the election to the GOP.

    He did; the effects were worse due to 9/11, but even if there had been no 9/11, the likely effects would have been at least another bout of Reaganism.

  26. If Nader, not a member of the Democratic Party, "cost" Gore Florida, then what circle of hell is reserved for the 300,000+ registered Democrats in Florida who voted for W?

    By the way, hate to bust up a good scapegoating, but despite Nader and the five other minor parties who got more votes than his, using the rules on the books when the election began, Gore WON Florida. (That is, under the intent of the voter standard that was the existing law on Election Day until the Supreme Court junta of five decided that, yes, suddenly, in contrast to ALL their prior cases on point — but for this one and only one case — there was grounds for a federal intervention to stop a state from counting the votes using the process in place. Later scholarly superstar jurist Scalia explained the legal reasoning thus: "Get over it.")

    But hey, the Right LOVES the result — you have a judicial coup and the primary victims are so busy throwing mud at the inconsequential fall guy that they are exhausted and thus fall totally in bed with the perps and start passing the perps' agenda from Day 1 — two rounds of tax cuts, wars, the USA PATRIOT act, etc.

  27. There are many Americas. (Polands, not so much.) Even MLK was not a moral authority in all of them. Whatever happened to him?

    George Bush the Lesser had enough moral authority that we adventured into two unjust, unwinnable wars on the strength of it. Some other bad stuff happened, IIRC.

  28. Darek — To my mind, and I think to many of the commentators here, a Moral Authority is someone that the population generally recognizes as one, so the determination of whether someone is a Moral Authority is a question of public opinion, not a question of whether the person actually is moral, has good policy opinions or anything else.

    In Ralph Nader's case, before his direct involvement in electoral politics, he was widely viewed as someone who made personal sacrifices to effectively — and more-or-less non-partisanly — fight for the greater good of Americans, qualifying pretty well as a Moral Authority. But his direct campaign hurt because first of all he became politically partisan and therefore untrustworthy in a M.A. sense (a M.A. needs to be seen as unbiased; someone who needs our votes can't be unbiased). Secondly, for many people his campaign appeared to be ego-driven and massively counter-productive, which also eliminates him as a M.A.

    This description of his public perception as Moral Authority has nothing to do with his actual abilities and faults. For the record, I highly admire his dedication and accomplishments, and agree with the vast majority of his policy suggestions. For what it's worth, he's also certainly, like many driven policy types, a horrible administrator and organizational manager. Then, he made a collossal mistake with his campaign, one that it is difficult to forgive.

  29. Interesting that nobody has even mentioned any American leader of organized religion. In secular Britain, Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks have some; so did the late Catholic Cardinal Basil Hume. In Germany, the dissident Catholic theologian Hans Küng.

    Should there be moral authorities, in the sense of people whose moral judgement one should trust on issues where one´s own best efforts at thinking things through still leave one confused? I assume there should not be moral authorities in the sense of people whose moral judgement one should trust even if their positions run contrary to one´s own clear intuitions and judgements. The slogan on the SS belt buckle – ¨Meine Ehre heisst Treue¨, loyalty is my honour, stands as an awful warning against such surrenders.

    We clearly need moral guides, people who can set a moral agenda, challenge our assumptions, and force us to think over issues we would prefer to ignore, such as Peter Singer on animal welfare, Al Gore on climate change, and the early feminists.

  30. The sine qua non of moral authority is leadership by example,so it's difficult to see how Obama, who seems totally cool with the coverup of the innumerable Bush-Junta crimes and war-crimes, qualifies.

  31. kalkaino, moral authority is not a matter of all or nothing. I agree that Obama lacks moral authority to the extent that he has asserted the power of the president to imprison anyone he pleases without due process, and has effectively endorsed the power of the president to torture people to death, virtually guaranteeing that future presidents will consider themselves to have both these powers. At the same time, Obama has moral authority in his ability to appeal to people's better natures, as in his speech during the campaign about Rev. Wright, and in his speech last year about health insurance. I wish that he would use his moral authority more and stop giving the impression that Rahm Emmanuel is his moral mentor.

  32. "Lawrence Lessig": one of Mark's two conditions is “enough public standing to be an actual force.”

  33. "At the same time, Obama has moral authority in his ability to appeal to people’s better natures"


    I can call spirits from the vasty deep.


    Why, so can I, or so can any man;

    But will they come when you do call for them?

  34. Brett, without debating whether that quotation from Henry IV applies to Obama, I commend you for coming up with it.

  35. Really, if we're saying moral authority alive today in America, Jimmy Carter stands alone on the podium. No silver or bronze that I can see. I do find it amusing as noted above that in the subcategory of news media figures Jon Stewart clearly does stand out.

  36. Andrew Sullivan? Moral Authority? Are you remotely serious? The man is a raging monomaniac, completely lacking in actual self awareness, and incapable of admitting, or perhaps grasping, his errors of judgement – and some have been committed on a scale to match his grandiosity. Everything, at all times, is about him, and his gut opinion is always right. He's a fiercely talented blogger, perhaps because of his profound personality defects, but I've seen garden furniture with more moral authority. Still a more plausible nomination than Ralph Nader, though – he's done less actual harm, after all.

    Garrison Keillor is an interesting choice. From what little I've heard, his personal life is no moral touchstone, and when his words on issues of national importance have made the news they've seemed to me to be unexceptional and sometimes perhaps slightly intemperate, but he certainly has a talent for warmly embracing human life in its complexity and for propagating an ideal of a good-humored society in which people of all backgrounds and outlooks (albeit disproportionately likely to be lugubrious, to be Lutheran, and to have eaten Lutefisk) can be good friends and neighbors.

  37. Isn't Carter that dude who goes around certifying all the third world despots' rigged elections? I suppose that's good work if you can get it, but hardly the stuff of moral authority.

  38. "Right. So there are rumors to determine what would have been with Nader."

    The issue is not whether Nader is a saint, the issue is how HE IS PERCEIVED. Are you really so out of touch with reality that you claim, in America in 2010, that Ralph Nader has widespread moral authority? Because THAT is the issue — not whether you think he is a great guy, or whether you think rumors about him are unfair.

    As for the topic of the thread, names that come to mind:

    * I suspect Nelson Mandela has widespread moral authority in the US, but would be unwilling to make a splash about US issues (and if he did so, would be dismissed as a "nice guy who doesn't understand the full situation").

    * I suspect Paul Volcker is on the cusp; he is saying all the right things about plutocracy, while clearly not some leftwing radical. But maybe he's an unknown figure to most Americans (or sufficiently hated by some for the early 1980s).

    * Ditto for John Dean

  39. Does one have to be older to be a moral authority? Is that why no one is listing young adults? I'm kinda curious about who our _next_ moral authorities will be. Also, surely Oprah isn't the sole woman to be a moral authority.

    Shane Claiborne is a moral authority, although not as widely known as he should be.

    Kate Harding is promoting a more gentle self-acceptance; she's nearing the top of blogland.

    Dan Savage is widely cited for a humane and forgiving view of sexuality.

    Digby has brought her morality to bear on tasers and gossipy viciousness.

    Miss Manners is nearly a synonym for properness, but morality underlies all her answers.

    Michael Pollan (and Mark Bittman) is setting a standard for moral eating.

    This is making me think that our moral authorities are specialized by topic.

  40. In regards to the 2000 election, the short answer is this:

    the reality [and you can know this for yourself if you see http://www.anunreasonableman.com} is that

    gore threw the race in ‘00 at least 3 times:

    1.] when, at the beginning of his campaign, he and lieberman stopped trying to say things that the people wanted to hear because their corporate paymasters yanked their leash [see “crashing the party” by ralph nader]

    2.] gore now ADMITS that he didn’t try hard enough to contest the voting irregularities

    3.] if you see michael moore’s FAHRENHEIT 9/11, you can see with your own eyes Al Gore shouting down the congressional black caucus’ attempt to question the voting irregularities on a ‘point of order’ which is like saying that, if i mug you, you can’t yell for help if we are in a ‘quiet hospital zone’.

    Besides, there were a total of six third party candidates, all of whom got more than the # of votes that gore ‘lost’ by, so why blame nader?

    the dems [or the car companies for that matter] blaming nader for their losses is like a hooker blaming their v.d. on mother theresa…!

    I mean, the democrats wanted the biggest job in the world and blamed their mistakes and losses on the man who gave us the EPA, OSHA, the freedom of information act, and so much more? it’s just baloney…

  41. "Michael Pollan . . . is setting a standard for moral eating."

    Really? He opposes factory farming, but not killing and eating animals, which is immoral, unless you'd otherwise starve. Jeffrey Masson writes, "Why do we honor Michael Pollan . . . find[ing] it acceptable that he can so casually describe (in The Omnivore's Dilemma) killing a wild boar . . . and serving her to friends as if it were an act of moral courage. . . . Or when he describes killing chickens on the 'ideal' organic farm as something one can easily get used to, why are we not disgusted?"

  42. Maynard,

    "The issue is not whether Nader is a saint, the issue is how HE IS PERCEIVED."

    That's laughable. You don't know what moral authority is then. Never mind that the term hasn't been defined well at all up to this point, but I mean, if we are just looking at the public relations aspect of persons standing, then that's just BS and you know it – which makes calling someone a moral authority along those lines meaningless.

    If I were to name someone (which I haven't yet), it would be Dennis Kucinich as a moral authority. I'm prepared to argue tooth and nail for his case, but you'd no doubt keep saying its no use as he isn't popular enough in spite of his well being and beliefs.

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