Character-Based Voting and Kleptocracy

I’m not normally a fan of either Ross Douthat or Sarah Chayes, but both of them have articles on the Ukraine-Biden-Trump crisis that strike me as simultaneously out-of-the-mainstream and completely on-target. Douthat’s “The Corruption Before Trump” is in today’s New York Times; Chayes’s “Hunter Biden’s Perfectly Legal, Socially Acceptable Corruption” is in The Atlantic from a few days ago.

Both make the same point, a point that coheres with the point I tried to make about the Ukraine scandal in my last post on it: even if you think that Trump’s behavior on the Ukraine phone call is reprehensible and impeachment-worthy, it’s just the most egregious instance of a widespread set of practices. There’s no point in attacking Trump in particular but leaving the practices themselves unscrutinized. Frankly, there’s no point in attacking the practices and leaving the ideological motivation for them unscrutinized, either. Chayes is better than Douthat on the corrupt nature of the practices; Douthat is better than Chayes on the issue of the ideological motivations for the practices. But read both together, and you get the right overall picture. 

I’m very late in posting the fifth installment of my five-part series on character-based voting (a day job can be a drag that way), but the Chayes and Douthat articles turn out to be relevant to that topic. In previous installments, I considered two grades of involvement and one of non-involvement between character and policy or governance. One is where character bears an instrumental relation to policy. A second is where the expression of character is constitutive of or expressive of governance itself. And a third was where character is relevant to fitness for office without having clear policy implications.

Douthat and Chayes’s framing of the Ukraine controversy indicates yet a fourth option: there are cases where policy and character are so closely intertwined that one can’t easily disentangle them so as to draw a clear contrast between character-based and policy-based voting. It’s not so much that character is instrumental to or even constitutive of policy or governance (at least in the senses described in parts two and three of my series), as that there are cases where they seem to overlap in ways that make them correlatives rather than contraries.* Is corruption a character issue or a policy issue? The corruption that Chayes and Douthat describe seems like both at once. If so, then a desire to attack a corrupt form of “business as usual” (as per Douthat’s account of this piece in The National Interest) is also both at once. And voting can be an expression of that desire.

Given this, it’s at least conceptually possible to imagine a form of voting based on opposition to corruption, where the proxy relationship between character-based and policy-based voting is guaranteed practically by definition. Of two candidates, A and B, the first of whom is obviously corrupt, and the second of whom is clearly not (or clearly less so), it can be justified to vote for B over A, where doing so is simultaneously a case of voting on character and on policy.

I don’t mean, of course, that Trump’s populism is a legitimate expression of this attitude. I just mean that a legitimate sort of populism is conceivable. The question is whether comparative judgments of corruptness or non-corruptness can simultaneously satisfy two criteria: populism and epistemic justifiability. In other words, is it possible to make comparative judgments about the corruptness of two candidates without relying on expert knowledge and being epistemically justified in one’s judgments? I don’t know, but the answer to that question would go a long way toward clarifying the justifiability of character-based voting. Having made my way through at least some chunk of the literature, I have yet to see it addressed in a satisfying or adequate way.


*As both Douthat and Chayes make clear, an added complication here is the role of private, non-governmental players closely associated (if that’s the word) with government. So even as the policy/character contrast can blur, there’s the additional question of whose policies we’re talking about. This is related but not identical to the issue I raised in this earlier series I started (but never finished) on character based voting and leadership effects.

2 thoughts on “Character-Based Voting and Kleptocracy

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  2. Pingback: Reparations Revisited | Policy of Truth

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