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Ethics for a Democratic Republic

Ethics for a Democratic Republic

Ethics

History shows many examples of successful political systems—as well as disastrous ones. And we live in a great, ongoing, and uncertain experiment in democratic republicanism.

For politics to go well, there must be widespread agreement upon its goals and methods. What values will good governments pursue? What character should politicians and citizens embody? What actions are legitimate? All of these are questions of political ethics.

Especially in a democratic republic, which is a do-it-yourself system with widespread participation in the process—voting, running for office, debating policies, and more—the citizens need to attend to the ethical dimensions of politics.

That requires an ongoing process of self-education both about the timeless principles of political theory and the major issues of the present time.  For example, are our Constitutional provisions still applicable? Why do we have so many unprincipled politicians? What can be done about voter ignorance and apathy? Do unelected government officials have too much unaccountable power? Do journalists and bloggers have responsibilities to provide unbiased information? These and countless other questions highlight the importance of ethics to politics.

Hence the Mission of this Political Ethics site.

Trump’s Corruption Mandate

Donald Trump’s astonishing election victory was in part a backlash against increasingly corrupt American politics.

Transparency International publishes an annual Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking all nations from most to least clean in their political conduct. The United States entered the twenty-first century by falling out of the top ten. Scandinavian nations such as Finland, Denmark, and Sweden along with Commonwealth nations such as New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom dominated the top spots, while the USA was ranked fourteenth.

Since then the USA has declined further in the Index's rankings.

Both corruption and the perception of corruption increased during the tenures of Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Examples included the use of the IRS to bully political enemies, government bailout funds going to politically-connected crony businesses, the use of high office to enrich one’s private foundation, and presidents and their appointees to regulatory bodies using their discretionary power indiscriminately.

Given this, one therefore understands the joke that the wildly-popular television show House of Cards is really a documentary.

Yet there is a danger in that joke. While corruption occurs in all governments, there a huge difference between cultures in which corruption is normalized and implicitly tolerated and those in which corruption is condemned, vigilantly monitored, and forced to go underground.

So Trump’s astonishing election victory may be a healthy reaction against the increasing corruption -- and therefore even more astonishing because his own character seems imbued with significant elements of personal and business-political corruption -- and because the combination of his presidency with his personal financial holdings is fraught with conflicts of interest (as this Wall Street Journal graphic shows). Yet since conflict-of-interest rules apply differently to the president and vice-president, according to 18 U.S. Code § 208, it is unclear how many conflicts will actually be avoided.

Of course some Trump supporters argue that it takes a beast to fight a beast, but what we really need is a political culture that does not lend itself to amoral animal metaphors.

Political leadership is a human endeavor, and effective human leadership in the free and open democratic republic we aspire to be requires both integrity and the widespread perception of integrity. We are a rich country economically, so we can recover from billions of dollars of loss. But the erosion of character among our leadership is much more expensive. It encourages cynicism among the citizenry. It imposes demoralization and disengagement costs upon them. It discourages the morally principled from seeking political office. And it attracts the even-more-corrupt to the corridors of power. No democratic republic can survive that downward cycle for long.

So while I did not vote for Trump, I am encouraged that his administration is following up on at least one of his campaign promises to for example, a five-year ban on lobbying for all transition and administration officials. We can debate the morality and likely effectiveness of that particular anti-corruption policy, but as a post-election statement of intent its seriousness is evident and positive.

Nations always have a choice. A century ago Argentina was among the top ten most prosperous and clean nations in the world, but it has declined precipitously and is now relatively much poorer and ranked in the bottom half of nations for bribery and related corruptions. South Africa was only moderately corrupt a generation ago and has also declined sadly.

Yet some countries have cleaned up their corruption impressively. Botswana improved dramatically in one generation, as did Chile -- both overcoming the widespread stereotype of irredeemable business-as-usual-corruption in African and Latin American politics.

A banana-republic destiny is avoidable for the USA. President Trump’s character -- with its odd mix of obviousness and unpredictability -- will be decisive, as will the vigilance of the rest of us and our commitment to putting the animals back in their cages and cleaning up their messes.

Tags: Corruption, Politics, Trump

Political protest in a "post-fact era"

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” (Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan)

 

A protester was shot at the University of Washington during a clash between rival factions — one faction physically blocking an audience from hearing a speech, the other faction seeking to hear a rabble-rousing orator.

The orator was Milo Yiannopoulos, a leading spokesman for the alt-right movement, a revitalized and muscularized version of nationalist and populist politics long submerged in American politics.

Outside the auditorium, blocs of red-wearing Trump supporters and black-wearing anarchists and others faced each other  (unconsciously updating Stendhal's novel The Red and the Black.) The man who was shot was apparently a peacemaker, placing himself in the middle of the verbally-abusing and pushing-and-shoving factions.

The victim's positioning was unfortunate, as there is little "middle" left in our polarized political times.

And it is symbolic that the shooting took place at a university, because it was precisely at universities where the battle for civility has been lost.

A generation ago in universities we had vigorous debates about truth, justice, freedom, and equality. The governing premises was that through argument rational people could fine-tune their grasp of the facts and test the logic of their theories. The process would often be contentious. Yet with professors and students committed to a baseline civility, it would be cognitively progressive.

But the leading professors of the new era — Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty among them -- undercut that entire process. Facts, they argued, are merely subjective constructs and masks for hidden power agendas. Over the next generation the words "truth," "justice," "freedom," and "equality" began to appear exclusively in ironic scare quotes.

"Everything," declared post-modern professor Fredric Jameson, "is political." And absent facts, argued post-modernist Frank Lentricchia, the professor's task is transformed from truth-seeker to political activist: in the classroom he should "exercise power for the purpose of social change."

We live in the resulting postmodern intellectual culture, with an entire generation (mis-)educated to see politics not as a cooperative quest to solve economic problems and protect human rights — but as a ceaseless clash of adversarial groups each committed to its own subjectivist values. Feminist groups versus racial groups versus wealth groups versus ethic groups versus sexuality groups versus an open-ended number of increasingly hostile and Balkanized subdivisions.

Thus we have a generation populated with biologically mature people who lack the psychological maturity to handle debate and occasional political loss — at the same time convinced of the absolute subjective necessity of asserting their goals in a hostile, victimizing social reality.

As reasonable discussion declined in universities, physicalist tactics quickly replaced them. Arguments about principles were replaced with routine ad hominem attacks. Letters of invitation to guest lecturers prompted threats of violence. The heckling of speakers turned to shouting them down. Picketing protests became intentional obstruction.

And now we get the inevitable backlash as other, rival factions learn the new rules and steel themselves for engagement.

Yiannopoulos himself is a product of post-modern culture, as it was he who exultingly coined the phrase "post-fact era" to describe how politics now works. He is proving himself to be an effective player of that brand of political activism.

Yet the governing ethic of our political culture is not a lost cause, as large swathes of the American populace are still committed to the core democrat-republican civic virtues of intellectually honest debate, free speech, tolerance — and of being both a good loser and a good winner. A fractious election brought out many of the worst among us. But journalistic headlines aside, our choice is not only between the tactics of post-modern political correctness and those of alt-right populism. Our leading intellectuals, especially those within universities who are nurturing the next generation of leaders, must also teach the genuinely liberal-education alternative.

Tags: Free Speech, College Students, Protests
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