Time to tie the Moral Cause of Democracy to Voters Self-Interest

Matthew Dowd
4 min readJan 7, 2024

Abraham Lincoln understood very well that in order to succeed in politics, win elections and preserve our union that communication must have a broad moral underpinning while simultaneously appealing to voters self-interest. He once said as President, all people “look to their self-interest”. So in todays historical battle to preserve and renew our democracy, political arguments must emphasize the broad moral arguments while consistently tying these foundational principles to voters self-interest.

President Joe Biden began to layout the choices for the 2024 in his compelling speech this past week at Valley Forge, PA as the defense of democracy opposing the threat Donald Trump and the MAGA GOP pose to democracy and our freedoms. If Biden is to succeed in this effort, this is exactly what he needs to make the 2024 election about, but he needs to tie this broad moral vision and sacred cause with why this matters to voters self-interest. Yes, democracy and our freedoms are at stake but why does that matter practically to an independent voter in Grand Rapids, Michigan or in Phoenix, AZ or in Erie, Pa who is paying more for food and housing today, is pessimistic about their future and who sees both Trump and Biden unfavorably? Democracy and freedom are just words to many of these voters who have lost trust in our institutions, and they must see those words through a prism of why it matters to them in their daily lives this year.

President Biden’s statement that “Donald Trump’s campaign is about him, not America, not you” is a great start. I would suggest there are many concrete and clear ways to express the defense of democracy as in the self-interest of voters. A visionary campaign and a successful one can make a sharp contrast between Donald Trump’s self-interest and every voters self-interest. And nearly every issue to be discussed can be enunciated through that narrative under the broad banner of the defense of democracy and the threat Trump poses.

For example, the defense of democracy is about preserving women’s healthcare choices and not allowing those choices to be determined by elitist politicians instead of the women themselves and doctors. The defense of democracy is about holding politicians accountable and ensuring the promise of social security and medicare is kept. Defending and renewing democracy is protecting our children in their classrooms from gun violence and not allowing the gun lobby to profit off the death of innocents.

Democracy involves the freedom of anyone to practice their faith in whatever manner they understand the divine through, or to practice no religion at all and live a moral life as they determine through their own conscience. The attacks on democracy today are led by christian nationalists wanting to force their view of faith on all Americans and not allowing each of us the personal freedom to worship in whatever way that inspires us.

Democracy contains within it the freedom of citizens to love whom they want to love, marry whom they want to marry, and raise their children in the way their hearts and souls call them. Our public education and public library system is dependent upon the preservation of democracy because without a vibrant school system citizens lack the capability of making informed choices and takes parents freedom away for raising healthy open-minded intelligent children. The threat to democracy comes from an elite group in our country today which wants to undercut those institutions so they can achieve their view of what our country is supposed to be.

Without democracy, diversity dies, acceptance of a multi-cultural society is diminished, and respect for others in the way they live, build community, and celebrate family is under attack. The economic life of every family is at stake in the potential loss of democracy. The growth of the middle class came about because we had a democracy and leaders who had to respond to voters. Labor unions grew and flourished, and the workers achieved gains due to a responsive democracy. And any increases in the minimum wage, or potential increases going forward, depend upon the power of average voters pushing against elites.

Even the ability to preserve our beloved planet Earth as climate change confronts us in an existential way is contingent on a healthy vibrant democracy. A vast majority of voters want something concrete done on this issue, while a small group of science-denying elites seek to stop any action. Without a democracy the views on this issue of average citizens will be ignored and our planet will suffer. We will lose access to clean drinking water, nature will be spoiled and the legacy of parks will be under attack, and citizens will die from cold, heat waves, and the rise of our oceans.

Yes, President Biden has made an important step, but he and his campaign if they want to succeed in this election, must do what Lincoln did and adorn the moral cause with issues of self-interest to get voters attention and action. Biden and the Democrats could easily run a populist campaign around democracy in opposition to the dictatorship of Trump and the elites who support him. If Lincoln could save the union by using appeals to self-interest 160 years ago, then shouldn’t we be doing the same today as we face an onslaught from modern secessionists and insurrectionists.