Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Consensus Politics?

In his post, Age of Janus, Timothy Burke laments the dearth of principle and good faith in contemporary political debate:
Mostly, it’s something grubbier and more depressing. People who argue that perjury is a grave crime against the rule of law, until it’s their own guy getting caught. People who have two completely different standards for reasonable judgements about evidence: absurdly stringent when the political opposition seems to favor a claim, promiscuously loose when it’s a case that favors their own perspective. People who have one view of what constitutes unwholesomely “political” interference with good governance when it’s the other guys (or some “corrupt” regime in the Third World) and another view when it’s the home team.

I don’t know what to say in those kinds of conversations any longer. I can’t just keep coming back to them with faith and hope that men and women who have the capacity to think clearly and behave ethically will eventually reconcile their political commitments with some kind of consistently held standards. All I need is even a small sign that this could happen to keep thinking it’s worth it to look for a way to talk. But I’m precisely the chump that I have been accused of being if I continue to agree that (for example) perjury is indeed a serious crime, and that Bill Clinton’s perjury was a serious issue if all that gets is derisive laughter when it’s time for others to pay off their own prior declarations of serious, serious concern with that crime.

It really is depressing. Given that civic respect is the core political virtue - the basis of a healthy democracy - partisan hypocrites are simply being evil. I'm serious: there's nothing worse. (All political evil is ultimately an extension of civic disrespect.) No matter how repugnant your first-order views, they will remain safely unimplemented as long as you respect procedural constraints and the normative acumen of your fellow citizens. But once we turn our backs on reasoned debate, and engage in rhetorical warfare designed merely to manipulate each other, all bets are off.

Outcomes decided by power rather than reason will, of course, be predictably worse. But, more than this, unreasoned politics is degrading -- a corruption of our potential as human beings. When partisans engage in lies and manipulation, they are treating us merely as a means, in violation of Kant's categorical imperative. They deny our political agency -- our ability to make discerning and ethical judgments, and to thus contribute to the collective decision-making process. They might as well spit in our faces while they're at it.

I'm encouraged that most people are turned off by partisan politics. They recognize the dishonesty and disrespect, and want no part of it. Unfortunately, most then turn away from politics altogether, leaving the vicious scumbags to reign supreme. Given that politics is the scene of important decisions - decisions that affect the lives of millions - we can't really afford to turn our backs on it like that. Instead, we must reclaim the public sphere in the name of consensus politics, deliberative democracy, and basic civic respect. (Easier said than done, perhaps. Yet all it would take is for more of us to speak up and insist on these minimal principles. Our present predicament only exists because our social norms don't yet recognize civic evil as beyond the pale. Silence is enabling.)


  1. Agreed entirely. Part of the problem though is structural, by having an electoral system where only two parties can succeed we allow parties to dominate. This puts us in the position where no meaningful choice represents your position. I am of the firm view that political parties undermine genuine democracy.

  2. our adverserial system assists that also. in that parties seem to be expected to 'provide oposition' (eg an alternative) even if they dont really oppose.

    I am also concerned by how the politicians seen to play to media with the soft questions like "the government has been great lately right" "thanks for the question, yes indeed it has been great".

  3. Let's look at Burke's examples:

    >People who argue that perjury is a
    >grave crime against the rule of
    >law, until it’s their own guy
    >getting caught.

    Libby and Clinton both committed perjury. Libby was fired and convicted and Clinton continued as president and was never criminally charged. Maybe that's what people are upset about.

    >People who have two completely
    >different standards for reasonable
    >judgements about evidence:
    >absurdly stringent when the
    >political opposition seems to
    >favor a claim, promiscuously loose
    >when it’s a case that favors their
    >own perspective.

    I don't know what examples he is thinking of, but anyone who says the US Constitution guarantees a right to have an abortion has no business criticising other people's evidentiary standards. That includes almost the entire political left.

    >People who have one view of what
    >constitutes unwholesomely
    >“political” interference with good
    >governance when it’s the other
    >guys (or some “corrupt” regime in
    >the Third World) and another view
    >when it’s the home team.

    Unless he is saying Bush is as bad as Saddam, I don't know what this is about. If they're not the same, why treat them the same?

    Sounds to me as though Burke is engaging in exactly the sort of grubby and depressing behaviour he accuses others of.

  4. David - that's a good point. I'm a big fan of New Zealand's MMP system for the chance it gives to minor parties. Even so, there's still not really any attention given to the sorts of metapolitical concerns I've raised here. Hopefully that will change!

    Genius - yeah, it is silly that the opposition is so undiscerning that they will even "oppose" policies that fit with their own principles. They ought to be capable of honest agreement every now and then! A related lament is that, not only are politicians incapable of admitting when others are right, but they're also too reluctant to change their minds and acknowledge past mistakes. (It doesn't help that partisan idiots would immediately brand them as "hypocrites" or "flip-floppers". Geez, it infuriates me.)

    Nigel - holy crap, did you read what you just wrote? You quote the three types of hypocrisy that Burke laments, and then - on no basis whatsoever (just because he leans "left"?) - air suspicions that Burke himself is probably guilty of the same. The mind boggles! (Of course the ad hominem would be fallacious anyway, since Burke's integrity is irrelevant to the truth of my conclusions. But still. Wow. What a thoroughly unmotivated and vicious accusation.)

  5. I thought it was pretty clear what my basis was.

    The reference to perjury is a pretty obvious comparison of Libby and Clinton. But it's not a double standard to be upset when two people do the same thing and are treated differently. And it's easy to advocate high standards after your guy has already gotten away with it.

    Likewise the 'unwholesomely “political” interference with good governance' is comparing the Bush administration to somebody, probably Saddam but maybe Ahmadinejad. Again, they're not the same so why treat them the same?

    And it's not a fallacious ad hominem. How can you complain about partisan double standards when your examples show the exact opposite?

    You don't have to be partisan to think that Libby should have been treated the same as Clinton or that Saddam should have been forcibly removed from power but Bush should not be.

    Of course dishonest partisanship exists, but so do dishonest and partisan allegations of dishonest partisanship. The passage you quoted sounds like the latter.

  6. Nigel, your every criticism comes from your own fevered imagination, reading in to Burke's post what isn't really there. Rather than mindlessly stereotyping him with your 'typical leftist' schema, how about you remove the partisan lens and try reading what the guy actually said?

    Look, you're trying to paint this as just another petty partisan contest: "is the left or right worse?" So long as the other team is worse, our team is immune from criticism. If "they" got away with murder, so should "we". (It's not as if we have any objective standards, a principled objection to murder or anything!) But that's precisely the kind of vile partisan perspective that Burke and I are complaining about!

    You've taken Burke's words and twisted them through the lens of partisanship, reinterpreting his call to principle merely as a leftist ploy to attack the right. It's sickening. Can't you even conceive of the possibility that someone might genuinely care about principle, and not merely as a means to partisan advantage?

    Simply put, I hate partisan politics. Really, if I were a snake I'd be spitting venom right now. Left or right, I don't care; what I hate is the unprincipled, blind solidarity - 'my tribe, right or wrong'. And Tim Burke is one of the very few others I've come across who consistently stands up for more procedural values. (Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings is another.) So it strikes me as a gross injustice to impugn the man's integrity without solid grounds.


    1. You have no evidence that Burke adopted "high standards" against perjury only after the Clinton episode. In fact, his post suggests the opposite: he was one of those who took the perjury charges seriously. And now he feels like a chump, as conservative opinion-makers trivialize perjury by arguing that Libby committed "no underlying crime".

    (Again, whether Clinton "got away with it" is irrelevant to whether Libby ought to. To think otherwise is to replace justice with rank partisan tit-for-tat.)

    2. You have no evidence that Burke believes that "the US Constitution guarantees a right to have an abortion." (You don't know anything about him except that he leans "left". But that's enough for you to impugn his integrity. Again: sickening.)

    3. Again, nothing Burke said suggests the simpleminded "comparison" you attribute to him. He simply complained about partisans who turn a blind eye to forms of "political interference" that would be instantly recognized as corrupt if anyone else did them. (I assume he's talking about the likes of the DOJ Attorney-firing scandal. Also, Burke teaches African history, so I'm guessing that's what's behind his parenthetical reference to "'corrupt' third world regimes". African regimes are notorious for their nepotism etc.)

    Two basic lessons in reading comprehension for you to take away from this:
    (i) there's not even the faintest suggestion of having people "forcibly removed from power". You just made that shit up.
    (ii) to claim that we tolerate here what we would call "corruption" elsewhere, is not to claim that there's any equivalence between what's happening here and what is happening elsewhere.

    Finally, your ad hominem: "Sounds to me as though Burke is engaging in exactly the sort of grubby and depressing behaviour he accuses others of."

    And therefore we shouldn't worry about grubby partisan behaviour? That's as plain a fallacy as it gets.

  7. Nigel I have got to say I agree with Richard.

    It takes an extremely uncharitable reading of Burke to get the result you think is there. And even if this reading is correct, so what? What Burke argues for can be right even if he is arguing for it dishonestly.

    Now back to the serious discussion. Richard I agree that MMP is a step in the right direction (a kicking, screaming slow moving step, but a step) but I think the 5% threshold for getting a seat is too high, especially when it is combined with the one electoral seat will do policy - That makes it likely that the only small parties to survive will be demagogues, since they are guaranteed to win their own seat at least. I'd be happier with a 1% threshold, yes it would mean more loon's in Govt but it would also make splitting off from the main parties vastly more viable.

  8. Yeah, I definitely agree about the need to lower the threshold. Even if it does produce a few more loons, it won't matter so much if the major factions split up and we get a reasonable (anti-loon) loose majority who are willing to cooperate with each other when need be.

  9. depends on what we want a government system to achieve.

    MMP serves a purpose in that it reduces al the problems one has of the 2 party system - which reminds me of that simpsons episodewhere the two aliens replaced Dole (mumbly joe) and Clinton (slick willie).

    "i'm going to vote for a third party!"
    "Go ahead throw your vote away!"

    however at some point it has achieved most of that, and you still have the question of if it is putting the most appropriate people in charge... or what quality of decisions will come from that group.


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