Here’s the third part of my five-part series on character-based voting and the ambiguities of “policy.” (It was supposed to be a four-part series, but I ended up adding a fifth.) Here’s part 1, and here’s part 2.
The point of the series is to probe ambiguities in the thesis that character-based voting is only permissible or legitimate in cases where character is a proxy for “policy” or “governance.” Part 1 introduced the issues by way of a recent example. Part 2 considered ambiguities in character’s being a proxy for policy in the sense of being instrumentally relevant to bringing about policies. Part 3 looks into the possibility that the expression of good or bad states of character could be constitutive of good governance itself.
(2) Second grade: character-revealing events as constitutive of governance
What if we regard Murad-type meetings as constitutive of governance itself (taking “governance” to refer to something broader than “policy,” at least on the colloquial understanding of both)? Put it this way: presidential governance consists, in part, of events of the Murad-type, so that it’s part of what it is to be a good president to do them well. In that case, Trump’s character would certainly be a proxy for the quality of the governance he’s likely to produce, the relevant inference being that his character is crap and is likely to produce crap governance in all Murad-type circumstances.
I think it’s safe to say that for many if not most pairwise comparisons, X versus Trump, the character of candidate X is likely to beat Trump with respect to quality when it comes to governance-related activities of this sort. Few presidential-level politicians are quite as bad as Trump at demonstrating the qualities expected of a leader on such occasions, where the badness in question is not just a matter of incompetence or klutziness (think Biden) but of malevolence. Trump doesn’t just mess up such occasions; he goes out of his way to use the office of the presidency to promote indecency. A recent example is his thumbs-up photo op with the orphaned infant child of the Anchondo family, killed in the recent El Paso shooting. I basically agree with Maureen Dowd’s take on this in The New York Times, as well as Rhonda Garelick’s in New York magazine. (As well as this piece by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic.)
The question then becomes: all things considered, how central to or important are Murad-type meetings to (presidential) governance? There are at least two different ways of asking and answering this question, one quantitative and one qualitative. The quantitative question is one of frequency: how often do Murad-type meetings happen in a president’s term? The qualitative question is: how important, in the sense of central to the job of the presidency, is any given Murad-type meeting? The more frequent and important the meetings, the higher their overall normative weight; the less frequent and less important, the lower their normative weight. If and to the extent that frequency and importance diverge, questions of normative weight become correspondingly muddy.*
The quantitative question has a clear enough answer at least for the President of the United States, not that I happen to know it off the top of my head. It’s “quite a lot.” Other elected offices may be similar in that respect; others may differ.
The qualitative question is harder to answer, and turns on two different interpretations of the nature of the presidency itself (and by implication, of elected offices themselves). There is the morally minimalist interpretation, which conceives of the president as merely (“merely”) the nation’s top-level executive officer, full stop. And there is the morally maximalist interpretation, which conceives of the president as not just a top-level executive officer, but as moral leader, guide, and exemplar. Even if we stick to the U.S. presidency, we can imagine intermediate positions between these two, and hybrids of the two. Once we move from the U.S. presidency to the diversity of elected offices beyond that, we get lots of different possibilities.
On the morally minimalist interpretation, the president’s job consists primarily of the execution of certain policy-relevant functions, which he’s expected to discharge in a narrowly competent, efficient, efficacious way. This means that he’s expected to discharge those functions with a minimum of morally expressive hullabaloo. (Coherence may require us to conceive the functions themselves in a morally minimalist way.) If he ever indulges in morally expressive hullabaloo, his doing so ought always (on this view) to be instrumentally tied to the effectuation of policy (itself conceived in non-moralistic terms). When morally expressive hullaballoo isn’t clearly and demonstrably tied to the demands of policy, it shouldn’t be done. And when it isn’t tied, and is done anyway, it shouldn’t be given much importance (unless it consumes too many resources, in which case it should be condemned as wasteful). Morally expressive behavior (“leadership”) is irrelevant to real politics.
On the morally maximalist interpretation, the president is a leader, moral exemplar, and moral teacher all at once: think Moses, Muhammad, Charlemagne, Saladin, Elizabeth I, Lincoln, Gandhi, Hitler, Ben Gurion, George Wallace, Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, and Benazir Bhutto (remembering that immoral or even evil exemplars are still exemplars).** A super-maximalist view turns (or comes close to turning) the leader into a deity or a prophet. But even a more moderate version of the maximalist view makes him or her a paradigm of virtue who leads and inspires us in ways that either go beyond the execution of the laws, or else conceives the laws or the functions of the office in moralistic ways, so as to construe their execution as an occasion for moral education and inspiration.
Put this way, the president has to exemplify the moral vision he professes to uphold–exemplify it authentically, rather than faking it. On this view, moral expression is a form of leadership, which is at the very heart of governance, whether or not it’s tied to the imperatives of policy-making. For instance, governance won’t be tied to policy when unexpected events arise that demand a moralized response of some kind. In cases like that, there’s a need for the right kind of response–the leader-appropriate response–well in advance of anyone’s ability to formulate policy in relation to the event. Such events are bound to arise, and may on occasion end up overshadowing the policy agenda announced or promised during a candidate’s candidacy.***
On any version of the maximalist interpretation, the president’s photo-ops are constitutive of the presidency as such: every photo op is an occasion for the display of the president’s virtue. Given the president’s moral role as an exemplar and teacher, that means that every photo op has to depict a president at the height of his or her moral powers, exercising those moral powers to the nth degree for the greater edification of the nation and perhaps the world. And again, what’s true of the U.S. Presidency may be true to greater or lesser extent of other electoral offices. (I’ve been focusing on the U.S. Presidency for convenience while stressing that it’s far from the whole story.)
Some readers are apt to find the whole idea of moral maximalism in politics either ridiculous or sinister or both; others may find it (or ideal conceptions of it) inspiring or clarifying. I’m just laying it out for now. But whichever interpretation we take–minimalist, maximalist, intermediate, hybrid–this much is clear: part of the unclarity of the idea that “character is a proxy for governance” turns on uncertainties about which interpretation to take of which elected offices and why.
There are at least two variables at work here, the office and the jurisdiction it covers. Every elected official is a _____ of _______, e.g., the President of the United States, the County Prosecutor of Bergen County, the Mayor of Casterbridge, the Treasurer of the Glen Ridge HOA, etc. So the complexity we face is not just a choice between minimalism, maximalism and its variants, but one between minimalism/maximalism and its variants as applied to different offices and different jurisdictions.
This complexity makes the issue of character-based voting more complex than it might at first seem. Indeed, I think it changes the structure of the topic. On p. 1 of The Ethics of Voting, Brennan stipulates that his book “concerns the ethics of voting in political contexts.” Most of the book discusses U.S. presidential elections, because that’s where the data is. But it isn’t necessarily where an inquiry into the ethics of voting should focus. An ethics of voting, you’d think, is an ethics designed to guide or evaluate action in contexts where voting is an important decision procedure. That’s as true of U.S. presidential elections as it is of elections for sheriff or prosecutor, and it’s as true of voting in political contexts as it is voting for an academic job candidate. Even if we focus on voting in political contexts, a focus on presidential politics is apt to conceal the diversity of offices under consideration. Character based voting might be more or less appropriate on a piecemeal basis.
And we need not focus on voting in political contexts. Political voting can either be seen as the paradigmatic instance that sets the agenda for the topic, or as one instance among many that happens to have attracted the interest of empirical scientists. Driven by where the data is, Brennan takes the former option. But driven by what the topic is, you might take the latter option. Once you do, it ceases to be obvious that you’re forced to adopt a morally minimalist interpretation of elected offices as such. Maybe some offices should be understood in minimalist ways, and others in more expansive ways. And maybe character-based voting applies more naturally to the latter, and has a stronger justification there.
That leaves us with at least two related questions. Why ever adopt a more-than-minimalist interpretation of an elected office? And: why ever adopt a more-than-minimalist interpretation of a political office like the U.S. presidency, so that Murad-type cases take on enough significance to count in presidential elections?
I’m not sure of the answers, but it does seem clear that the questions are relevant and worth pursuing. One possibility worth pursuing is that moral minimalism and maximalism about governance varies with moral minimalism and maximalism about the ultimate aims of politics. In other words, it could be that the more moralized one’s conception of the ultimate aims of politics, the more that the effectuation of those aims requires a morally maximal sort of leadership; morally minimalist leaders can’t carry off morally maximalist aims. This suggests that perfectionists about politics will tend to prefer morally maximalist (or at least more-than-minimalist) governance. But non-perfectionist conceptions may yield the same tendency, at least if they’re moralized in the right way.
For now, I just want to stress that the case for character-based voting is weaker on minimalist and stronger on maximalist interpretations. If we grant maximalism, it becomes stronger the wider we cast our net to include different types of elections and offices. The wider the net, the more likely it is that maximalism has application.****
In the next installment, I’ll consider the possibility that bad character past a certain threshold can be intrinsically disqualifying for office regardless of the implications for policy or governance. In the bonus fifth installment, I’ll respond to a clarifying objection raised by Benjamin Rossi, who was kind enough to write up some comments on a paper I presented on this topic last year at the Alabama Philosophical Society conference in Pensacola.
*There are, of course, ambiguities in the concept of a “Murad-type” meeting, but I can’t do justice to that complexity right now. What I mean for now (meaning, in part 3) is: any public event in which an elected official openly uses electoral office to send a moral message to the public. Relevant and important but outside of the scope of a “Murad-type meeting” are those activities, whether concealed or open, that elected officials engage in during their “private” lives while in office, which are not intended to send a moral message, but end up sending one once exposed (or would send one if exposed): e.g., sexual affairs, shady financial or political deals, problematic associations, commitments, and alliances, etc.
** Some may be tempted to put Barack Obama on this list, but I think we need more distance from the Obama presidency to know how much of what he did was real moral maximalism and how much was opportunistic flim-flam that looks better than it was when viewed from a few years into the Trump presidency. I can’t get into the details here.
***I’ve tried to formulate moral maximalism to be neutral as between liberal and non-liberal conceptions of politics. That moral maximalism is compatible with anti-liberal politics is probably obvious from the examples I’ve given, but I think it’s compatible at least in principle with liberal politics, as well. A liberal moral maximalist would have to be careful to constrain her uses of the office via liberal restrictions on the use of governmental power, but she could still use the office in a maximalist way for liberal ends. It’s an interesting exercise to try to imagine virtuous (liberal) opposites to the evil (anti-liberal) politicians on the list.
****Galston’s work is suggestive, but I can’t pursue the details right now.