Democrats and Dirty Hands

Opposition parties look different. Remember 2004, Howard Dean, and MoveOn.org? It seems a long way from Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and the Tea Party. The party without the White House lacks clear leadership, especially since House rule changes have turned Newt Gingrich’s position into John Boehner’s. Instead, these opposition parties are sites of rowdy conversations (or shouting matches) that will decide the future direction of the party.

The opposition has a clear line to the moral high ground. There was the antiwar Obama in 2008 and the “humble foreign policy” advocated by George W. Bush in 2000. The Tea Party hearkens back to a protest against “taxation without representation” and to classical liberal consent theory. Near its core is a libertarian ethic of non-violence, and the conviction that the government is violent, oppressive, and out of control.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the shrewd Cassius knows that Brutus, with his reputation for nobility, must be the face of the opposition. Eventually, Cassius knows, the conspirators will have to convince the multitude that they have saved Rome from the tyrannical Caesar. The plan is derailed when Brutus refuses to get his hands dirty and kill Mark Antony. Brutus is the symbol of opposition. Antony is the symbol of effective rule. He is “elected” by the crowd over Brutus by promising them prosperity, and has no qualms about murdering scores of opponents offstage. Would the play be any less bloody if Antony was subject to a referendum in four years’ time? Perhaps not.

Ruling parties must govern, and here the pressures of democracy act differently. Few moral philosophers are willing to give a free pass to those who commit moral wrongs for the sake of community defense. (Recall how in 1956 G. E. M. Anscombe protested the ‘mass murderer’ Harry S Truman at Oxford.) But political theorists, Michael Walzer first among them in our time, recognize that “getting one’s hands dirty” is politically necessary. Leaders who swear oaths to defend the nation find themselves in a dilemma when the best defensive practices involve moral wrongdoing.

Democratic statesmen do not face a moral dilemma. But they do choose between their democratic legitimacy and their moral obligations. It is a truism that democratic societies want their leaders to have dirty hands, that they want their leaders to give up pure morality and do what needs to be done. Dirty hands is part of the job the democratic statesman is expected to do.

For a century now, from pragmatists to ‘deliberative democrats’, the mainstream of political theory has followed John Dewey’s slogan that the “cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy”. So what do we do when democracy consistently produces results that we find highly morally objectionable?

Five years after the antiwar candidate was inaugurated, Guantanamo Bay is still in operation, and more combat drones are in the air. In Democracy and Tradition, Jeffrey Stout raises the stakes to point out that even a democracy with vibrant Christian traditions fails to strongly object to torture, secret prisons, and a ‘permanent state of exception’. His answer, too, seems to be “more democracy” (plus “more engaged Christianity”).

From Machiavelli to Walzer, the dirty hands problem is usually used to mitigate moral wrongs committed by statesmen. What happens when democratic societies demand what Trollope’s Lady Cardbury calls “beneficent audacity“? Do we have a conception of morality strong enough to pull the other way, or are moral arguments merely the contrivance of an opportunistic opposition?

Dirty hands problems are commonplace, and might temper our late enthusiasm for democracy.

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2 responses to “Democrats and Dirty Hands

  1. Pingback: Shirking Burke | sweep·

  2. Pingback: The Return of the Conservative Communitarians? | sweep·

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