"What is happening to my country?" Regardless of political identity, if you spend time on social media or following the news, you've likely asked this question, disillusioned by a sense that the nation's moral ground is shifting beneath your feet.
As America has grown more diverse, more secular and more polarized, its moral compass is harder to tune to a true north, with no particular voice emerging as an authority. Fifty years ago, the U.S. faced one of its most tumultuous periods, yet millions of eyes still turned toward identifiable leaders:
Some experts say these trends have created a moral vacuum.
"Society used to be more unified in the people they saw as moral leaders," said Barbara Perry, a historian at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, which specializes in presidential scholarship.
One attempt to fill that gap comes from the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which on Monday begins a 40-day operation of civil disobedience, including protests and teach-ins, to elevate the issue of poverty.
"When we look at the deep moral traditions of faith, it requires that a moral agenda starts with concern for the poor and the stranger, the immigrant, the least of these, the sick, the hurting," said campaign co-chair Rev. William Barber. "When we look at our Constitution, the moral agenda of our Constitution starts with the ensuring of domestic tranquility, the establishment of justice, the providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare.”
But right now, Barber says, "policies are being pushed that are literally killing people."
The Poor People's Campaign first launched in 1968, as MLK sought to mobilize poor people of all races to demand full employment, a guaranteed living wage, affordable housing and better schools.
"I think that people are ready and they have decided ... that there has to be a remnant that is willing to stand up and bring people together and unite people across racial lines, across gender lines, across geographic lines," Barber said. "It is dangerous, I believe, to our democratic experiment if we don’t use these voices."
In history class, presidents are often held up as beacons of morality.
"Look at the legend that grew up around [George] Washington: 'I cannot tell a lie.' And then carry that on to Abraham Lincoln: 'Honest Abe,'" said Perry.
That doesn't mean they all upheld high personal moral standards. Grover Cleveland had an illegitimate child with a woman he was accused of raping; likewise, Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave, Sally Hemings. The public was largely in the dark about John F. Kennedy's womanizing while he was in office, but if he behaved that way today one can imagine the tweets and late-night jabs akin to Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and the infamous blue dress.
And those are just the sexual scandals. Trust in the government plummeted during President Nixon's Watergate scandal.
“I think it’s almost inevitable where we are now,” Perry said. “We have become more skeptical and cynical about authority generally and about presidents specifically.”
With the 2016 election, Perry said, Trump removed "a moral standard for becoming president."
During his campaign, Trump faced accusations of sexual misconduct and of not paying his workers. He said in January 2016: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters."
"With Donald Trump, I think we have just crossed the Rubicon, because ... his very platform of running was 'all presidents lie, all politicians lie,'" Perry said.
Trump has made more than 3,000 false or misleading claims so far in his presidency, according to the Washington Post. His administration has faced a slew of ethics complaints. A USA TODAY focus group of Trump supporters revealed that they think the president is lying about Stormy Daniels, but they don't care.
Research shows we generally want people who do good things to also be good people. But moral character and moral effectiveness do not always align, said David Pizarro, a Cornell University professor who studies moral reasoning, judgment and emotion.
"Obama doesn’t get much flack for his rampant use of drones, but I think that’s because we focus so much on character, and he seems like a good guy. If Trump was as hawkish with war drones given his character ... we would say this was a bad action," Pizarro said. "I think that’s a mistake in that they’re not logically related. We’re good at evaluating persons and we’re very bad at evaluating the overall consequences of a moral leader, or any kind of leader, because that takes time and data."
The ability to take time, to evaluate and to apply logic can be difficult in the social media age.
“Social media is essentially dialing up the volume on moral outrage by ... making it less costly to express," said Molly Crocket, a professor of psychology at Yale who studies social decision-making.
The sheer volume of the 24/7 news cycle - and the fact that virtually anyone with a smartphone can be a broadcaster and commentator - has flooded our newstreams. People are more likely to click on stories that are salacious, not serious, delving into personal failings rather than policy details - and digital publishers can see this data in real time.
“I think it’s not so much that humans have changed, as much as it is that the world has changed and technology has changed,” Pizarro said. “I think the crisis really is that we have so much access to character and character cues.”
Not everyone fears a moral vacuum, however. Barber said he sees "moral leadership everywhere" - at the ground level.
"I believe the voices are here, and that’s one of the main reasons the Poor People's Campaign is here, to elevate those voices," Barber said. "To give space for impacted people, and moral leaders and clergy and others who, in fact, will lift before the nation a moral vision."
ARE YOU A GOOD PERSON? Morality experts say this is how to find out
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