Character-Based Voting and the Ambiguities of “Policy” (Part 3 of 5)

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.

4 thoughts on “Character-Based Voting and the Ambiguities of “Policy” (Part 3 of 5)

  1. a) “Even if we focus on voting in political contexts, a focus on presidential politics is apt to conceal the diversity of offices under consideration.”

    That seems particularly relevant to my current home state, Alabama, which has a history of electing governors who, in addition to whatever dreadful public policies they’ve supported and private sheanigans they’ve been involved in, have been masters of godawful public rhetoric. Everyone knows about George Wallace, but sticking to governors we’ve had just during the time I’ve been living here, e.g., Fob James imitated an ape to make fun of evolution, Don Siegelman told a boy wearing an earring “If God had meant you to have pierced ears you’d have been born a girl” and explained (in a kind of honesty-about-dishonesty), “of course I reappointed [the nearly universally-hated Auburn trustee Bobby Lowder]; he was my biggest donor”; and Robert Bentley telling a crowd: “anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister.”

    Also judges of course: Roy Moore is nationally famous for his Ten-Commandments-in-the-courthouse policy and his refusal to honour the legalisation of same-sex marriage (as well as, latterly, his history of creeping around high school girls), but he also issued this gem of a court decision — which is policy in its direct effects. but goes farther in its rhetoric:

    “[D]isfavoring practicing homosexuals in custody matters promotes the general welfare of the people of our State in accordance with our law, which is the duty of its public servants.   … [T]he protection of the family is a responsibility of the State.   Custody disputes involve decision-making by the State, within the limits of its sphere of authority, in a way that preserves the fundamental family structure.   The State carries the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution.   It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this lifestyle, to not encourage a criminal lifestyle.

    b) “Moses, Muhammad, Charlemagne, Saladin, Elizabeth I, Lincoln, Gandhi, Hitler, Ben Gurion, George Wallace, Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, and Benazir Bhutto” … walk into a bar. I want to hear the rest of the joke.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Re (a): Those examples definitely work, but ironically, what I had in mind when I was writing that particular sentence were benign examples drawn either from hyper-local American politics (more local than the gubernatorial level), or resistance-type politics of the kind one encounters under a military occupation, e.g., in Palestine.

      Municipal governments are elected. In electing them, one votes, indirectly, for their law enforcement officers, e.g., police chiefs and municipal prosecutors. (Some prosecutors and some sheriffs are directly elected.) When it comes to law enforcement, a great deal (though not all) of policy is pre-determined. But I think it makes sense to vote on character either as a proxy for the specification of those policies, or as a proxy for governance in the broader sense.

      Suppose two mayoral candidates are up for election, neither of whom is entirely forthcoming or clear about his intended law enforcement priorities once in office, but both of whom have distinctively different electoral styles which reveal character more than they reveal specific policies. The voter correctly gets the sense that Smith is more open to complaints about local law enforcement, and more sensitive to the problems within law enforcement. Jones is neither. Knowing no more than this, the voter votes for Smith. The vote in question is a gamble, but seems justified. (There’s an ambiguity in The Ethics of Voting between the voter’s being justified all in, the vote’s being justified all in, and the voter’s beliefs being epistemically justified, but however you slice it, I would say that there is justification here.)

      We can either interpret this vote as a vote for character functioning as a proxy for policy, or as a vote for character functioning as a proxy for governance in the wider sense. In other words, either the mayor will actually affect the workings of the police department (policy), or if he can’t do that, his administration will acknowledge, expressively and rhetorically, that real problems exist and would be changed if it were possible to change them (governance). The latter subjunctive sort of governance may seem weak and even pointless, but it’s preferable to being verbally assaulted by a callously insensitive mayor every time she takes to the podium. Thus one might prefer a relatively ineffective DiBlasio-like candidate to a wrongheadedly effective Giuliani-type candidate (on this issue, at least) without having to know the policy details of “Broken Windows Policing.”

      Or consider a resistance leader who, constrained by circumstances, can’t actually pull off very much in the way of policy (e.g., a West Bank Palestinian under the Israeli occupation). This person’s politics will of necessity have to be almost entirely gestural or expressive. But it can (justifiably) matter to her constituents whether the public posture she takes is one of resistance/defiance, or abjection/surrender. Relatedly, it can matter whether the candidate “connects with” or identifies with her constituency in a way they find familiar and trustworthy, or is hard to trust–aloof and alienated from them.

      The occupying authority may well allow for elections, but severely limit what elected officials can say or do. If so, it can be justified to vote for the resistant and defiant candidate, not the abject, groveling one, etc. Ex hypothesi, once in office, the candidate will not be able to say or do much in the way of policy. The premium will be on making the right rhetorical or expressive gestures within severely limited constraints. (This might include what otherwise might seem quixotic behavior, like getting arrested and going on a prolonged hunger strike.) In this case, character is revealed through governance in the broad sense. If so, character-based voting seems justifiable. And whether or not it applies elsewhere, this is a case in which I find moral maximalism entirely plausible, as well. A morally minimalist President of the United States is one thing; a morally minimalist Palestinian resistance leader is a contradiction in terms.

      It occurs to me that even apart from the minimalist/maximalist issue I raised in the post, a lot turns on whether we adopt a personal or impersonal model of politics. The smaller the scale, the more plausible it becomes to adopt a personal model, and for character to matter.

      Separate issue: your comments on Moore remind me that some judges are elected. It can make perfect sense to vote against the judge who shows wanton disrespect for defendants even if his rulings are themselves sound. But this sort of election is so distant from the context Brennan discusses that it’s hard to know how to fit it into his framework. Does it even make sense to describe judicial rulings as statements of policy? Can we reliably predict the expected consequences of a prosecutor’s “policies” by inspecting his past prosecutions? Or by inspecting his performance in private practice as a tax attorney? Not clear, but that’s the available evidence in elections for, say, county prosecutor. The distinction between “character” and “policy” starts to break down or at least fuzz up in cases like this.

      Re (b): to paraphrase Static-X, I think the intro to that joke is the punchline.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Character-Based Voting and the Ambiguities of “Policy” (Part 4 of 5) | Policy of Truth

  3. Pingback: Character-Based Voting and Kleptocracy | Policy of Truth

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s