Thursday, June 03, 2004In an interview yesterday on the O'Franken Factor, conservative columnist David Brooks criticized partisans who make evaluations of their opponents without personal knowledge of them. This is a basic misunderstanding of the democratic process. Our public discussions should be on public rather than private matters. The relationship between personal character and public virtue is an uneasy one at best. Many of our most talented political leaders have been not very nice people, and some of our most moral politicians have been disasters. The comparison between Bush and Clinton is just the easiest example.
In fact, there is profound distinction between public and private morality. Private morality is something very easy to understand- would we want to be friends with this person? But public morality is trickier. Cavour said it best: "If we did for ourselves what we did for our country, what scoundrels we'd be." In other words, when one is responsible for the lives of others, conventional personal ethics can be counterproductive. We need not be quite so abstract, however. Politicians with public morality have policy positions consistent with their reputations, and faithfully attempt to implement the policies they advocate. Finally, they are responsible to the public trust: they do not embezzle, for example, or deliberately undermine the democratic process. Unfortunately, public morality is much more difficult to understand or explain. Which is why the media tends to focus on "character."
Which feeds into the second problem with Brooks' perspective, that it is covertly conservative. Not just in the sense that so few people will ever have personal knowledge of public officials (does this mean we should defer to those elite few who do?), but in that the right has always championed a superficial moralism (I don't cheat on my wife) while they have had problems with presenting themselves as what they really are (compassionate conservative??).
Focusing on personal character is not just irrelevant, but insidious. The political debate in America has been debased by character attacks. The right rarely directly engages in substantive discussion: they just call the other guy a liar or traitor or some such nonsense. All they really use anymore is ad hominem attacks. The fact that these sorts of accusations are damaging to democracy itself doesn't seem to stop either conservatives or the media from using them. Let's take Al Gore's recent speech as an example. Rather than rebutting any of his arguments, the right just called him crazy and the media wondered about the effect on Kerry (making it a process story). Where is the room for democratic discourse?
In the final analysis, is doesn't matter if George Bush is a good man, or a religious man, or a nice one. It certainly doesn't matter if someone "has a good heart." It matters whether he is what he purports to be. And I don't need to know him personally to know that.