Rude, maybe, but not wrong

Generosity of spirit is good, and political cynicism is corrosive. Alas, that doesn’t mean that the logic underlying every plea for generosity of spirit is valid.

Eugene Volokh’s post criticizing the attribution of bad motives to political actors is a case in point. His deeply generous nature seems to have overcome his equally impressive powers of analysis.

Eugene argues that the most natural understanding of political competition is that Democrats and Republicans are groups of people united and motivated primarily by different views of the public good and how to achieve it, and that the competition for officeholding and other forms of power reflects the genuine conviction of each side that its preferred policies would be better for the country.

Even if that were the entire truth, it wouldn’t imply the absence of cynical political maneuvering. The more convinced you are that your side’s policies represent Truth, Justice, and the American Way, the greater your willingness to pursue particular policies you think don’t serve the public interest if by doing so you can help keep the Good Guys in power or throw the rascals out, depending.

Bad policy can be good politics when it appeals to popular prejudice, attracts the support of a bloc of voters whose interests run counter to the public interest, or attracts campaign contributions. The Democrats, for example, at the behest of the teachers’ unions, persistently pursue policies with respect to education that make it harder for poor children to learn; at the behest of the ethanol lobby, they have consistently supported a subsidy program that is no more than an expensive way to wreck the environment while somewhat increasing the demand for imported oil.

There are also opportunities, especially for the “out” party, to make things worse for the country in ways that will make the “ins” less popular. The most spectacular examples were the successful attempts of the Nixon campaign to prevent a Vietnam peace accord in 1968 and of the Reagan campaign to prevent a deal for the return of the Iranian hostages in 1980. But the “ins,” if they are clever, can play the same game: Reagan pushed the Democrats into voting for big payroll tax increases as part of the Social Security reforms of the mid-1980s, calculating correctly that paying higher payroll taxes would outrage some younger workers who would otherwise have been Democratic voters.

Every White House plays this sort of game to some extent; the Clinton White House, despite the famous policy-wonkishness of its leader, was worse than most. [Notice that the very term “policy wonk” reflects the view of many participants in the political process that actual concern about the likely impact of political action on the public welfare is something between an uncool behavior and a character deficiency.]

John DiIulio, no innocent in these matters, reported (before he had his kneecaps smashed by Karl Rove) the Bush White House was unparalleled in its attention to “strateregy”: that is, the consideration of every issue primarily from the viewpoint of partisan advantage. The dramatic increase in the ideological polarization of the parties and the coarsening of the mores of public life have both enormously increased the stakes of the game, and thus the motivation to cheat just a little bit when it seems necessary.

So the premise that people in partisan politics care primarily about the public good doesn’t really support the inference that most of what they do, or propose, is intended by them to be for the public good, other than indirectly through its effect on the balance of partisan advantage.

Moreover, the premise itself is a half-truth. Politics engages all of the emotions that arise in any other team sport. Even someone who originally became a Democrat out of, say, concern about environmental protection, is likely to get caught up in “team spirit,” and begin to regard victory as an end in itself. Being a Democrat has something in common with being a Notre Dame fan.

Nor is concern about the public welfare the only factor that brings people into the political arena. There are people who seek office in order to advance some set of public purposes. But there are also people who advocate public purposes as a means of gaining and holding office. And there are others still whose livelihood depends in part on their participation in the political struggle.

The financial payoffs to political success can be enormous. Vernon Jordan, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush have all become very wealthy men due to their connections with the powerful. At a lower level, there are on both sides armies of lawyers, lobbyists, contractors, and even journalists whose incomes depend, to a greater or lesser extent, on the power balance between the parties and on their own perceived contributions to one side or the other.

Even those whose original motivation for entering the fray was public-spirited find themselves with families and mortgages; as Weber says, they start out living for politics but wind up living off politics. Both parties need to keep their armies mobilized and fed, which means they need to win.

It would be nice to imagine that George W. Bush never thinks, as he considers whether to let the Iraq situation simmer for a while to get on top of the North Korean problem, that doing so would give him an enormous political black eye. It would also be nice to imagine that Nancy Pelosi never thinks, as she considers whether to criticize Bush over Iraq rather than standing behind him now that he’s clearly committed the country to war, that her action, by slightly stiffening the spines of both the Iraqis and the wavering members of the Security Council, will slightly increase the chances of a diplomatic, or even a military, disaster that the country would then blame on the President.

By deliberately creating and exploiting avoidable partisan division (e.g., around the management details of the Homeland Defense Agency) the current Administration has sacrificed some of the advantage that usually accrues to the President from a real national crisis. The price of his victory in November was the creation of a Government of National Disunity.

Cynicism and motive-hunting are indeed distractions from serious debate on the issues. But that doesn’t make their factual premises incorrect. And one of the few disadvantages of cynical behavior is the risk that it will attract criticism from the other side. So while it’s easy to endorse Eugene’s plea for some attention to evidence and probability in making such accusations, I can’t assent to his assertions that they are always, or even usually, inaccurate.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: