A Plea for Political Prudence

It pains me greatly to say anything in defense of Mitt Romney, but sometimes even the worst villain can be attacked for unfair reasons, and those reasons may be worth refuting.  Few criticisms of Romney—from the right, at least—have been so common as charges about “what he did as governor of Massachusetts.”  He brought in an Obamacare prototype, he advanced, or at the very least did not oppose, very pro-choice legislation, he was big-government, he was liberal, etc.  Now this is to be expected, naturally.  Presidential candidates, or any candidates, for that matter, are almost always judged on their history—their voting record or their governing record, and indeed, what else are we to judge them on?  We can hardly judge them based on their words, because of their appalling disregard for the truth, or their promises, because they rarely expect to keep them.  So we have to judge them on their deeds.  By their works ye shall know them, right?

 Well, yes but….  For one thing, our leaders are not absolute dictators, so not everything done on the watch of a president or a governor or a mayor was necessarily their doing, and certainly it wasn’t necessarily their preference.  But more importantly, politics is not the simple one-to-one application of pre-existing ideological commitments to the real world—at any rate, it’s not meant to be, though one could be excused, in modern America, for thinking that’s what it is.  Politics is fundamentally the art of prudence.  And prudence is all about responding differently in different circumstances, depending on what those circumstances demand.  This is especially the case in politics.  What one people or political unit needs might be quite different from what another needs.  Even if they both ultimately need the same thing, the means of accomplishing the end may be quite different in the different situations.  Different legal precedents will exist in different places, different traditions, different expectations, different pressures, different powers for the various levels of government.  None of this is to deny that leaders should be men of principle, but principles have to be applied, and their application may look very different once prudently brought to bear on all these different circumstances.  

In short, it is quite possible that Massachusetts may need to be governed in a different way than Wyoming, or than the United States as a whole.  And it is quite possible that the same man, without reneging on any matter of principle, could insist that he is going to do things differently as president, than he did as governor of a particular state.  It is quite possible that he may have supported laws and policies for a state, whether because he thought them good for its people, or because they were at least the lesser of the evils available to him there, that he would not support for the country as a whole, whether because he judges that it has a different common good, or because political circumstances allow him more room to maneuver.  

Don’t get me wrong—I have little doubt that Romney is a sly, slippery, dissembling, waffly politician.  But I do want us at least to dispense with the blind ideology that demands that someone has a 100% pure pro-life record, or a 100% pure conservative record, or whatever the case may be, refusing to grant that politics is about governing, and governing is about real-world people and institutions, not abstract principles, and real-world people and institutions call for variation and flexibility.

Politics and the Peril of Truth

In chapter 17 of his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Baruch Spinoza remarks: “Those who administer a state or hold power inevitably try to lend any wrong they do the appearance of right and try to persuade the people that they acted honourably.” Seemingly trite and obvious perhaps, at first, but on reflection, a shrewd observation about the deep roots of corruption that seem almost inescapable in the business of politics. The perpetual peril of the truth and the seeming inevitability of corruption in politics are the theme (or one of the themes) of the remarkable recent film, The Ides of March (don’t worry, I’ll avoid spoilers).

The uncomfortable insight of this movie is that political corruption does not come about simply because all politicians are self-interested bastards (though they are often that), but is, on the contrary, something into which many find themselves sliding almost by accident, despite the best intentions. The truth, it turns out, is too dangerous a thing for the business of politics, and to succeed, you must learn to hide it. As Spinoza realized, it is fatal for any leader, no matter how good a leader he may otherwise be, no matter how wise his policies, to show signs of moral weakness. Image is everything, and character is essential to image. The masses, and nowadays, the media, are hungrily waiting for any misstep, any chink in the armor of apparent virtue, and they will pounce without mercy. When this happens, penitence is no use, it is too late. The people do not want to see in a leader a man like them, someone with many faults, but sincerely regretful for them–they want to see a pillar of virtue. So the only choice for a politician who wishes to succeed is to conceal any faults, to lend to any wrong the appearance of right and try to persuade the people that he has always acted honourably. This, at any rate, is the common wisdom, and this is the tragic dilemma that The Ides of March explores. Read More