Post One: Introduction
Like the NFL’s attempts to determine what counts as a catch, this year’s primary contests have been marked by disagreement about what constitutes ethical behavior in campaign competitions. To cite a few prominent recent examples:
- Ted Cruz’s campaign was roundly criticized for implying that Ben Carson had ended his candidacy in the middle of the Iowa caucuses. The press release was unethical, critics argued, because it impacted the outcome of the contest (would-be Carson supporters voted for Cruz after hearing Carson left the race).
- Many in Iowa were upset about the mailers distributed by Cruz staffers insinuating that potential caucus goers’ alleged participation rates would be publicized. Critics claimed that the Cruz campaign acted unethically in sending because the mailers are manipulative and deceptive–Iowans were tricked into attending the caucuses (and supporting Cruz).
- Donald Trump has been denounced for repeatedly personally insulting his competitors. Critics argue that his rhetoric has lowered the quality of political discourse.
- Many Republican candidates have accused each other of lying about one thing or another.
- Bernie Sanders’ campaign has been attacked for publishing misleading information regarding newspaper endorsements. Like the Cruz mailers, critics argued that the advertisements were unethical because Sanders’ campaign used misinformation to increase support.
- A Sanders’ staffer accessed data owned by the Clinton campaign without permission. While possibly illegal, Clinton supporters have argued that the breach was certainly a violation of campaign norms.
At first glance, the negative reactions to these developments are not particularly surprising; all this behavior seems intuitively wrong, at least in the context of everyday morality. Yet there have been other instances of candidates engaging in actions that one would usually frown if witnessed in daily life that that were not met with outrage and controversy. For example:
- Chris Christie was praised for attacking Marco Rubio’s robotic tendencies during a New Hampshire debate.
- Sanders’ strategy of doggedly linking Clinton with Wall Street donors has been lauded as one of the most effective parts of his campaign.
So what’s the difference? Why do we censure some actions while accepting others as part of the rough and tumble nature of the political game? In other words, what ethical criterion or moral framework does one use to determine the moral ‘wrongness’ of any candidate’s actions? Is it (il)legality of the act? Is the behavior judged in light conventional norms of interpersonal interactions (e.g. lies and insults are generally frowned upon)? Or, are actions judged by something else entirely—like the ‘spirit’ of the competition?
While I eventually intend to develop an empirically informed answer to these questions, this blog will serve as a sort of data collection depository for disagreements about what constitutes fair play in the campaign game. More concretely, I will use it to list and categorize (e.g. take note of the justifications provided by both the accused and accuser) some of the ethical controversies that arise during this election season. I suspect some patterns will emerge and I hope that they will help us make begin to make sense of the ‘inner morality’ of elections and campaigns.
Finally, I should note that I am not interested in making judgments about the morality of any particular action, here. One can find a wide variety of opinions both defending and criticizing a candidate’s behavior, regardless of how outrageous or offensive it might be, elsewhere. Thus, I’ll usually refrain from weighing in on any controversy in the interest of uncovering what others think it means to compete fairly during campaign season.