The New York Times Magazine
Originally posted January 2, 2019
If, in politics, words are weapons, they often prove themselves double—edged. So it was when, on the summer night that Alexandria Ocasio—Cortez learned that she had won a Democratic congressional primary over a 10-term incumbent, she provided a resonant quote to a TV reporter. “I think what we’ve seen is that working—class Americans want a clear champion,” she said, “and there is nothing radical about moral clarity in 2018.” Dozens of news videos and articles would cite those words as journalists worked to interpret what Ocasio—Cortez’s triumph, repeated in November’s general election, might represent for the American left and its newest star.
Until recently, “moral clarity” was more likely to signal combativeness toward the left, not from it: It served for decades as a badge of membership among conservative hawks and cultural crusaders. But in the Trump era, militant certainty takes precedence across the political spectrum. On the left, “moral clarity” can mean taking an unyielding stand against economic inequality or social injustice, climate change or gun violence. Closer to the center, it can take on a sonorous, transpartisan tone, as when Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat, and former Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, each called for “moral clarity” in the White House reaction to the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And it can fly beyond politics altogether, as when the surgeon and author Atul Gawande writes that better health care “does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity.” We hear about moral clarity any time there is impatience with equivocation, delay, conciliation and confusion — whenever people long for rapid action based on truths they hold to be self—evident.
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