As soon as someone tells me that one particular political measure or decision is the right or moral choice and the alternatives to it are irresponsible and immoral, I start to feel an almost irresistible urge to do the immoral, the forbidden thing. It’s not that I am a willful reprobate. Or not just that, anyway. I simply don’t believe it. This assertion looks way too much like moral blackmail to me, and hence it is itself at least as likely to be immoral as the thing it deprecates. American politics for reasons that I go into in detail in my book, Media Madness, is becoming more and more corrupted in this way as the media and their foolishly compliant political acolytes attempt to transform issue after issue — from global warming to health care to the war in Iraq — into a moral crusade instead of the problem in practical politics that each of these things is in reality. Right now, they’re in the process of doing the same thing to the Wall Street bailout.
Like most people of the chattering classes, I was unthinkingly in favor of the bailout when it was first proposed. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do if the economy is not to collapse, of course. But then the insistence of its proponents that it would collapse became just a little too strident. The moral note began to creep in, and I began to think that the case for the deal must be weaker than I thought if they were having to tighten the moral screws on the skeptics. Then Nancy Pelosi decided to turn the deal she and her fellow congressional leaders and the administration had hammered out over the weekend into part of her and her party’s on-going moral assault on the Bush presidency and single-handedly wrecked it. So then, it appears I was right to be suspicious. Of course it was the GOP skeptics who got hammered for it. Even the Wall Street Journal said “that Republicans chose to oppose something they think is in the national interest merely because of a partisan slight.”
Well, it may be so. But it seems to me rather that they came to think of something they had been bullied into thinking in the national interest must not be so after all, if this was how its proponents were behaving. If the case were so morally exigent as Mrs. Pelosi and the others claimed it was, she would not have attempted to turn it into a partisan triumph. The fact that she did suggested that she must have been hyping the crisis and her preferred remedy for it from the start. Now she simply wanted the moral credit of the thing, such as it was, for her party and its presidential candidate. That could be taken as a pretty good indication in itself that there was no moral credit in it. The House GOP must have seen the same thing and, rightly, voted the thing down. It was all just politics after all.
And it is of the first importance that we understand the difference between morality and politics.
David Brooks joined in the attack on the Republican refuseniks, calling them “nihilists,” and said that “If this economy slides, they will go down in history as the Smoot-Hawleys of the 21st century.” An interesting qualification that. Is it really only “if this economy slides” that they will become Smoots and Hawleys? And if it doesn’t slide, does that mean they won’t be nihilists anymore either? If, in other words, his point is to persuade us that the House GOP is guilty of some moral dereliction, isn’t it undercut by this implied concession that if it all works out all right they’re off the hook? That’s the very reason why politics is never well served by being moralized: because political decisions always involve such contingencies. Politicians always have to make a judgment call as to what course will be for the best. They may be right or they may be wrong, but it simply cannot be that they are acting morally only if they are right and immorally only if they are wrong.
For that would be to deny the very meaning of morality, which implies fixed principles of right and wrong whatever may be the results of acting on them. The only fixed principle in politics is that you consider the good of the commonwealth in giving your honest judgment as to what course is best in a given circumstance. Now we know that politicians don’t always do that, but unless there is hard evidence of actual corruption, it is essential to the proper functioning of a democracy that they be given the benefit of the doubt that they are acting in good faith. During the Bush administration especially but to a greater or lesser extent under every president since Lyndon Johnson, the media have thought it their duty — or, not to give them the benefit of the doubt, their profit — to deny our leaders this assumption of their good faith, with what result we see in the utter collapse of our political discourse into mere name-calling. Whose purposes does that serve?
Oh, right. I forgot. It serves the media’s purposes by increasing the level of moral drama and excitement in something that, to be effective, has to be and in fact is rather dull and, from their point of view, unmarketable. Not for the first time we may reflect that it is the media’s world; we’re only living in it.