Cultural Crossroads: Rush Limbaugh May Teach Conservatives A Lesson

The reaction to the drug problem — and drug felonies — recently alleged against Rush Limbaugh highlight sharply the differences between conservative morality and liberal/progressive morality.

Conservatives often mistakenly proclaim themselves the sole holders of morality. Their error comes when they define this word first and foremost in terms of personal behavior: what goes on in people’s bedrooms, what drugs others may be taking in their own living rooms, whether a woman should be allowed to prevent or terminate a pregnancy. In their fervor for these issues, many conservatives think they are the only ones concerned about morality in an otherwise decadent society.

Liberals, however, are equally passionate about morality. While personal morality is key in the conservative world-view, public morality is the overarching concern of liberals. Some are so passionate about this morality that they’re led to acts of civil disobedience.

Perhaps best summarized in Jesus’ description in Matthew 25 of who will (and who won’t) get into heaven, liberal morality asks: “Are the hungry fed? Does everybody have the housing, clothing, and health-care they need? Are those in prison treated humanely? Are we caring for the ‘strangers’ — the less fortunate or less competent among us — in the same way we’d want to be cared for if we fell on hard times?”

Many liberals would say that what people do in their private lives is their own business, and that if we hold to the ancient standard that only those among us without sin may cast stones at those with personal failings, we’ll have a more humane and decent society.

Just as liberals hold public morality as a high positive virtue, public immorality equally disgusts them. Movie stars using their power and position to force themselves sexually in a non-consensual way on others. Politicians using their positions to award their buddies taxpayer money in grants, contracts, and tax breaks. Bureaucrats, expecting a job with industry when they leave regulatory agencies, allowing those industries to make our air, water, or food more toxic.

Most liberals don’t care how stoned Rush wants to get in the privacy of his own home (private morality), so long as he doesn’t try to drive while high (public morality). Similarly, they don’t have a problem with Bill Clinton’s consensual extramarital sex (private morality), but are horrified that he’d sign GATT and NAFTA without human rights, environmental, or labor standards (public morality). Bill Bennett is welcome to gamble as much as he wants (private morality), but when he supports right wing causes that harm the environment or oppress women in America or people in the Third World (public morality) he has become toxic.

There’s an interesting consistency to these differing definitions of morality. Conservatives like Falwell probably are free of personal sins like philandering or pot smoking, and so feel righteous in condemning others who do. And because Falwell’s definition of morality is limited to private behavior, he’s comfortable hobnobbing with millionaires who made their money harming the lives of others or making the world more toxic. (Just so long as they don’t sleep with somebody of the same sex!)

On the other hand, because liberals like Martin Sheen define morality by how well we all are taking care of us, and he’s most likely never worked to increase the amount of toxic waste in the air, he’s willing to both overlook the personal foibles of others and to put his life and freedom on the line for the public morality he so passionately cares about.

Which brings us back to Rush. Some believe that these private/public morality differences that form the demarcation line between conservatives and liberals are instinctual, an early imprint, or genetic, the same as a person being an introvert or extravert. Others believe they’re the result of experience, and people can learn from their experience and grow up enough to become a liberal. Psychologists tell us that nobody knows for sure what causes a person to become a liberal or a conservative (although there are some interesting, and frightening, studies about the latter — but let’s leave that for a future discussion.)

It’s going to be interesting to watch. Will Rush’s apparent drug problem cause conservatives to grow in wisdom, reconsider the destructive nature of their so-called “war on drugs,” and begin to treat drug addiction as a medical — instead of a legal — problem like so many other liberal nations have done? Might they even discover the importance of rebuilding the pillars of public morality on which this nation was founded — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Some say it’s impossible. As a good liberal, however, I’m willing to cut Rush some slack and hope for his and his followers’ enlightenment. Let’s hope and pray that if he gets out of this okay, he’ll work to help release the millions of others today in prison for personal poor choices about drugs.

Published on Friday, October 3, 2003 by

Thom Hartmann is the award-wining, best-selling author of over a dozen books, and the host of a syndicated daily talk show that runs opposite Rush Limbaugh in cities from coast to coast. Visit This article is copyright by Thom Hartmann, but permission is granted for reprint, email, blog or web media so long as this credit is attached and the title is unchanged.