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. Come on, the question wasn't, "Who has moral authority in some kind of Platonic sense, utterly apart from public perception?" The answer to that question would probably be some pre-school teacher somewhere never heard of outside her circle of friends, or maybe somebody working at Underwriter's Laboratory. The question is clearly, "Who has moral authority in a public sense, that their pronouncements are taken seriously by a substantial majority of the people?" And the answer is nobody. We're too divided, and everything is too politicized, for that sort of status to be available.

  2. Ignoring the onanism of the Naderites, I was tempted to suggest Kucinich earlier – but I've been vexed by his grandstanding on health care reform, and I've read he was rather a hank as a young man.

  3. er, "hank" s/b "hack".

    (Thinking of when he was first Mayor, and was tagged with a reputation for ineffective egotism rather than effective activism).

  4. "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.”

    For the future (and I'm no youngster, and not that leftish), I nominate for consideration Stephen Colbert.

    When so inclined, the man has "moral authority" the younger generation seems prepared to accept (review the successful exploits of "The Colbert Nation"), and can apparently add words/concepts with moral nuance to the language at will (truthiness, wikiality). Those are both amazing accomplishments. Don't count him out. AND, he supports the right of DC denizens to fair and equal representation (with his usual reverse psychology).

  5. Is there a writer today with moral authority? I ask that after reading the following in the Feb. 19, 2010 TLS: "Hundreds and hundreds of people followed his coffin — not because they had read Tolstoy's novels but because they saw in him a figure of titanic moral authority who could stand out against the insane militarism which was about to engulf the world in destruction and against the horrible inequalities which allowed a few to wallow in luxury while the poor remained so poor."

  6. The question naturally depends on your perspective. From where I sit, Jan Schakowksy and Dick Durbin have moral authority.

  7. It might not be for lack of qualified figures, it's the way they get lost in the cacophony. In a slightly earlier time, one could imagine that the thoughtful likes of Bill Moyers, Derek Bok, Irwin Kula, Mario Cuomo, Sandra Day O'Connor, some cardinal or civil rights leader would have emerged from the center-right or -left, above the fray, for saying and writing what they are today. But not a chance in all the noise.

  8. nader supporter- In regards to the congressional black caucus' representative on the floor of the senate, it is my recollection that Gore was acting in his capacity as president of the senate. The representative was trying to present a petition and Gore had to imform the rep that she had no standing without the sponsorship of a senator. I never understood why no senator would provide such sponsorship but they have strange ways in the senate. Also it didn't seem to me that he shouted at anyone although he did seem rather stressed. Perhaps he was hopeing someone would volunteer as such a sponsor.

    I agree that it seemed Gore's heart wasn't into winning enough and so got rolled.

    As to Nader while I've enjoyed listening to and reading his statements and agree with most of his ideas I don't think running for the office of president should be used to "make a statement" and thus being a spoiler. I really believe that is what Nader is doing when he runs his quixotic campaigns and I do think it deminishes his moral authority. But that's just my oppinion.

  9. On Nader, could we please stop feeding the troll? I have never seen so many people so easily conned. Derek is not interested in the topic of this post. He is interested in fighting with people about Nader. He's had this fight a million times before and he loves it.

    Okay, Derek, here we go:


    Okay, are we done with Nader now? Can we return to the post, please?

  10. Nader supporter,

    Contrary to the saying, failure has a thousand fathers. There were many things that led to Gore's defeat in 2000. One of them, beyond any reasonable doubt, was Nader's campaign.

    If Nader had not run Gore would have been elected. That is as irrefutable as a hypothetical historical proposition can be. Nader either didn't care, or did but was prepared to run the risk. In either case neither he nor his supporters can dodge responsibility.

  11. Really, anyone who is ridiculed and dismissed by Beltway pundits (e.g. Gore, Soros, Michael Moore) can be assumed to be a person of high moral stature.

  12. James Wimberley: I spent a while trying to think of a modern equivalent of William Sloane Coffin, and couldn't come up with anyone. Bill Sinkford (until recently president of the UUs) was a national voice on marraige equality, but I don't know how widely recognized he is.

    One more nomination: Salman Rushdie. In the manner of some past moral authorities (Mandela, MLK) he gains some of his gravitas from having himself been through the valley of darkness. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has considerable gravitas for the same reason, but not enough for me to agree with her.

    If you had asked three years ago, I would have said (then) NY Att'y General Eliot Spitzer, who was a convincing crusader for the cause of good. Things went downhill after that.

  13. How sad the harvest. This is all we can sieve from our World?

    My heroes have been Ali, John Lennon, and MLK. The World is hard on my heroes.

    Nowadays, I respect Bill Gates for how he spends his money, AND for how he thinks of money – supporting the Estate Tax and progressive taxes in general. This is important, coming from someone who will PAY.

  14. I didn't single out Bill Moyers, even though I consider him a moral authority, because a measure should be having moved the needle on an issue, like the W. presidency. Not sure he he's met that test. But maybe.

  15. A few:

    * Ron Paul – a weird choice for me personally, because I vehemently disagree with his politics, and in many ways think his morality is compromised on, e.g., gay marriage, immigration, and his overall racism and bigotry. On the other hand, he's one of the few conservatives in politics that actually holds conviction in his beliefs. He's never one for political posturing, regards welfare and the military-industrial complex as being equally problematic, and avoids many of the moral pitfalls that have besieged and delegitimized contemporary Republicanism. He's insane, sure, but I think in many ways a decent role model for both liberals and conservatives.

    * Paul Krugman – as a robust defender against the economic nonsense which drives political discourse, Krugman has not only become a hero to the left, but a hero to any left-of-centre American who say the Bush Administration's economic policies for what they really were, and are now frustrated with the meaningless debates over short-term deficits in the face of economic crisis. Although he's a bit prone to rabble-rousing and anger without basis, Krugman is above all a principled liberal economist who truly wants to see Americans succeed, not just to see a liberal government hold power.

    * Toni Morrison – beyond being one of America's greatest living authors, Morrison is also the most prominent figure advocating the richness of African American culture which has made the United States the cultural powerhouse it truly is. By bringing serious black literature into the mainstream, she greatly expanded its role, and is more responsible than any one person for one of the great contemporary achievements in racial equality: black literature can now be popular among all audiences without being a masterpiece. (Of course, she's responsible for scores of masterpieces herself, but this is her societal impact.)

    * Billy Graham – another odd choice for me, as I'm not a Christian, let alone a conservative evangelical. However, Graham's refusal to play into Falwell's politicization of Christian evangelism, along with his brave stands against segregation (having paid Martin Luther King's bail and torn down ropes that had racially separated audiences at his sermons), make him certainly the most morally principled conservative Christian today. Although he is too old and ill to hold the sway that he did decades ago, he is still a great example to the evangelical community, and a rare conservative Christian who deserves respect and admiration from all Americans.

  16. Bloix,

    Thanks for the strawman, but I made my position on what I thought of Nader and who I would posit as a moral authority.


    See. Capitalization doesn't do much to add anything.

  17. I'll second the nomination of Paul Krugman. But I'd like to defend both the Left and Prof. Krugman from association with one another. Krugman is a liberal, i.e. a political centrist, not a leftist. Communists, socialists and democratic socialists are leftists, not liberals.

    It's fairly common to see liberals conflated with leftists these days. And it's understandable, since a return to the liberal center would require a significant leftward swing from the current polity. But neither liberals nor the left are helped by this confusion.

  18. Terry Anderson. (Some of you are probably too young to know who Terry Anderson is.)

    I miss the likes of Barbara Jordan and, more recently, Paul Tsongas.

  19. My vote for moral authority for some time time now has been Bill Moyers. Not only is he well informed in many different areas, he is willing to listen to other views and he has a considerable audience on PBS.

  20. Ralph Nader…instead of arguing about 2000 ad nauseum, let's examine Nader. A gay Lebanese? Does anyone think a gay Levantine is a moral authority in this country?

    I like the Obama choice. I makes the reactionaries spit their coffee and hey, he did win a Nobel after all.

  21. Benny's comment may be meant as a comment on American prejudice, and maybe he's not all wrong; but I think most people who despise Nader do so for his public acts, not his ethnicity or private life.

  22. I think most Democrats who despise Nader will claim it's because of his public acts, but I think it has as much or more to do with the fact that it's so much easier (and human) to blame the other than to examine your own party's serious shortcomings.

  23. BillP says:

    "It might not be for lack of qualified figures, it’s the way they get lost in the cacophony. In a slightly earlier time, one could imagine that the thoughtful likes of Bill Moyers, Derek Bok, Irwin Kula, Mario Cuomo, Sandra Day O’Connor…"

    With Bush vs. Gore, she pissed any moral authority away, quite deliberately.

  24. Two names spring to mind for me, though possibly neither has enough influence to be considered an authority;

    Noam Chomskey

    Glenn Greenwald

  25. To James Wimberley's comment about Religious figures: Unfortunately in Ameria there had been a series of religious figures who were held forth as Secular Moral Authorities. These included Dr Norman Vincent Peale, Rev Billy Graham, and Nixon's favorite Father Theodore Hesburg of Notre Dame (perhaps the least partisan of the lot). Peale' anti-catholicism raged while Grapham's was more subtle in his doubts about Kennedy's and Papism. All of these were just shades of our earlier Authority Father Coughlin. America's and England's religious histories and the leaders who emerged in the 20th Century, are just too different. Let us render unto Caesar… and unto God…. Luckily we Jews have wisely prefered our religious authorities to not speak for the American populace.

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