Americans value moral leadership from their politicians, but Republicans and Democrats define morality differently, complicating how we see each other and the lawmakers who represent us.
Voters across the spectrum agree honesty and trustworthiness are part of the moral leadership equation, but from there, differences emerge.
In a new national poll conducted by HarrisX for the Deseret News, after honesty Republicans and independents chose family values next, while Democrats’ second choice was a tie between diversity, equity and inclusion and fair treatment of others.
Beyond differences over defining morality, this is also an age where the worst behavior of Americans’ elected leaders seem constantly on display.
These are unprecedented times. The Republican frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, has now been indicted three times on charges of hiding classified documents, falsifying business records, and attempting to overturn the 2020 election.
And House Republicans are investigating the link between President Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s Biden’s murky foreign business dealings and criminal charges. A business associate of Hunter Biden recently came forward to allege the Bidens engaged in influence peddling, and said President Biden spoke to business leaders during his son’s phone calls.
The parties seem to spend as much time investigating their opponents as they do governing.
Whether today’s politicians are uniquely scandal-plagued, or if, as some argue, more is known about their scandals because of social media and cable news, Americans still hope to see moral leadership from the people who lead them.
That comes through in the Deseret News/HarrisX poll. When asked whether politicians should focus more on moral leadership or practical outcomes, 55% of voters chose moral leadership, while 45% opted for practical outcomes.
Democrats and Republicans both favored moral leadership — 61% to 39% for Democrats, and 55% to 45% for Republicans — while independents ranked practical outcomes ahead 53% to 47%.
Moral leadership running ahead of practical outcomes was an unexpected finding, said Dritan Nesho, CEO of HarrisX.
He pointed out the difference in this finding compared to when voters are asked if they want politicians to focus on so-called “kitchen table” issues, jobs, inflation and Social Security, over issues that fit more in the “culture war” category.
Consistently, voters say they want lawmakers to focus on practical issues. But wading into the culture war does not equate to providing moral leadership, he said.
“American voters clearly seek moral leadership from their leaders, and rank this form of moral guidance and vision as even more important than the high value they put on practical outcomes. But to voters moral leadership means a focus on honest and trustworthy leadership; what they do not want is culture wars and an undue focus on cultural values, over which they do not agree,” said Nesho.
Another poll run by HarrisX shows the difference — a majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents say lawmakers should focus on bread-and-butter issues over cultural issues, with 65% of all voters choosing bread-and-butter, compared to 35% who want their lawmakers to focus on cultural issues.
This may be in part because the cultural issues are so fraught.
At a recent event, Congressman Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said lawmakers today are debating “existential issues” — like how to define what a man or woman is, or what it means to value religious liberty.
“We’re really at a crossroads in many ways of deciding who we are and what we believe as a people. And because that’s true, it’s very difficult to find common ground or to compromise,” he said.
But Stewart expressed hope that lawmakers could find a way through, much as they did in the past.
One thing that may help is if Americans understand how their friends and neighbors define moral leadership.
In the recent Deseret News/HarrisX poll, respondents were asked what moral leadership looks like to them.
Nesho said beyond honesty, the concept of moral leadership is “defined in widely different ways.”
“Republicans anchor on family values, the founding principles of the United States, and righteousness, faith and religion; Democrats focus on diversity, equity and inclusion and equality of opportunity; and independents reflect a broad view inclusive of family values, founding principles, and fair treatment of others,” he said.
The poll was conducted July 31-Aug. 1, among 935 registered voters, and has a margin of error of +/- 3.2 percentage points.
In response to an open-ended question asking how respondents “personally define moral leadership,” words that emerged among Democrats included ethical, others, and everyone. For Republicans, that list included just, country and God.
But there were commonalities as well — right, honest, values.
When asked to pick three terms from a list, in addition to what Nesho mentioned above, Democrats were more likely to choose good deeds and equality of opportunity, while Republicans were more likely to choose individual freedom and righteousness.
But, many Republicans also said they value fairness, and many Democrats chose faith. Plus, not choosing something in the top three doesn’t mean it isn’t something people value. But understanding what neighbors and friends might emphasize can foster understanding, and perhaps allow areas of compromise to emerge.
Americans are different, but maybe not that far apart.