Category Archives: democracy

Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

Post 1: VOTING VIOLATION and the Cruz Campaign Mailers

When and why do pundits, candidates, and campaign staffers cry foul during election season? As I mentioned in my introductory post, this section of the blog will serve as a sort of data collection depository for disagreements about what counts as fair play in campaign competitions.

The issue:

In recent days, many have accused the Cruz campaign of using “dirty tricks” during his presidential campaign (you can watch Seth Meyers’ Late Night segment on Cruz for a more entertaining rundown of some of his ‘tricks’). While Cruz has provided those of us interested in campaign ethics with an abundance of material to examine, I want to focus on one particular (and lesser known but perhaps more interesting) controversy that Cruz was forced to address in the past month.

Iowans (and a handful of pundit) were upset about the mailers distributed by Cruz staffers insinuating that potential caucus goers’ participation rates would be publicized. In hopes of increasing turnout, Cruz (presumably) sent these notices—which can be seen in the image below—to those his campaign thought would be likely to support him in the caucuses (a strategy that seems to have backfired in the case Tom Hinkelday).

 

Cruz Mailer

The accusation:

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate condemned Cruz’s tactic because “it is not in keeping in the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses.” Iowa Governor Terry Brandstad called the mailers “unethical and unfair.”

The accused’s response:

After criticism about the misleading mailers, Cruz said: “I will apologize to no one for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote.”

Categorization:

After the mailers made headlines, the Cruz campaign was accused of dishonesty by some and outright fraud (but not illegality) by others. As noted above, Pate and Brandstad argued that Cruz was violating the spirit of the competition. Almost all agreed that the mailers were legal (in fact, Donald Trump deleted a tweet where he stated that they were illegal). And though some accused Cruz of personal immorality following the mailer controversy, his campaign was usually criticized on the grounds that it circumvented the rules of the political game by sending the mailers. Moreover, Cruz himself did not deny that the mailers were deceptive and manipulative (perhaps implicitly acknowledging that, in his view, deception and manipulation have a place in campaigning). All things considered, both Cruz and his critics appear to believe that one’s ethical judgment about the mailers were depends on how one understands the rules of the game. In short, this ethical controversy is about fair play more than personal morality or legality.

Other possibly relevant information:

These mailers have been distributed in previous campaigns with little or no fanfare. Why did this controversy make headlines? Some have argued that this particular mailer was worse than others because assigned letter grades (which usually happened to be an “F”) next to the names of individuals. Others have stated that it looks much more like an official state document than previous mailers. While it seems as though the mailers are now generally taken to be more evidence that Cruz is personally untrustworthy (which, as many have pointed out, is ironic considering he usually speaks in front of ‘TrusTED’ banner), that didn’t seem to be the case, initially.

Mr Corbyn and parliamentary bloodsports

corbyn kinder

We count democratic politics on this blog as one of the Big Archetypical deliberately adversarial institutions. Power in the state is not given to a person or group who is carefully determined to be able to use it to run the most just government. It is given to the winners of a highly regulated — and also ritualized — contest; otherwise known as an election.

It is easy for us to see and feel the “game” of politics during elections. In America right now we are consumed by it, and it is covered by the news media in almost exactly the same way the sports media covers professional and college sports leagues. But elections are only part of the game of democratic politics. The next most visible political competition happens openly in legislative assemblies, and then in the maneuverings — partly public, but often in “back rooms” — that precede the debates and votes that take place in the legislatures.

One of the principal complaints about the legislative game, from the point of view of adversarial ethics, is that it has become in the US a so-called “permanent campaign” — legislators between elections are primarily concerned about what they can do (or avoid doing) in the legislature in order to win the next election. If they ever care the slightest about the design and justice of policies, bills, and laws, it is only insofar as public perceptions about these things will influence the next election. (See the criticisms of Mitch McConnell discussed here a few days ago.) This is the heart of the satire in the greatest just-slightly-fictional political comedy ever, the BBC’s Yes Minister (and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister), not to mention the now-sharked House of Cards.

This post, however, is less about the “permanent campaign” than about a much more visible manifestation of politics-as-sport (even bloodsport, on occasion). Every legislature has its own written and unwritten rule, conventions, and rituals of debate. And no legislature has had more time to develop these than the British House of Commons, where the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition debate face-t0-face on an almost weekly basis. It you were designing from scratch the rules by which a deliberative body would be most likely to develop and enact sensible legislation (what political philosophers do when they theorize about “deliberative democracy“) you would not end up with something like the House of Commons. To say nothing of the House of Lords or the Monarchy.

That said, in the UK, it is what it is. All MPs know the rules, written and unwritten. For example, they never address each other directly, but carry on the debate as if everyone were trying to convince the Speaker. Although outsiders may be aghast at the seemingly buffoonish behavior of British MPs in the House, the MPs themselves are expected to know how to deal with it if they are to have any chance of “winning” the day during Question Period.

Which brings us to the clip-of-the-day in my Facebook newsfeed. Comments on Facebook and Twitter from many of my American friends and friends-of-friends suggests they don’t really know how British politicians, especially the PM and the Leader of the Opposition, are expected to play this game. What is obvious, however, is that virtually every MP on both sides of the isle knows who won and who lost this round.

I see that many British commentators (well, some of my British Facebook friends, at any rate) have all sorts of sinister explanations for the irrepressible smiles of Jeremy Corbyn‘s colleague Andy Burnham, the Shadow Home Secretary, seated behind Corbyn, on his left. I am too ignorant of Labour Party intrigue to psychoanalyze him from this clip alone. It seems to me that Burnham knows the rules of the game, knows that his leader has just been blown up by his own pompously lobbed petard, and done so because of the kind of quick wit one usually sees only on scripted shows like Jon Stewart’s old Daily Show. Burnham seems to be tipping his hat for a move well played by his opponents. Normally, that is one of the hallmarks of good sportsmanship. Corbyn’s inability to do the same, and to immediately change course and attempt to seize rhetorical advantage in a way he had not planned, is also a sign that he either does not understand the game he is playing during Prime Minister’s Questions or, more likely, that his game as a parliamentarian is just not that good.

 

Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

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:

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:

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.

Democracy for a race of Mitch McConnells

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)Immanuel Kant famously believed that “the problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent.” These rational devils will realize that they need well designed and enforced laws for their own self-preservation, even though each “is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them.” So they need “to establish a constitution in such a way that, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such evil intentions.”

In short, in this essay Perpetual Peace, published about 30 years after Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Kant was optimistic that with a well designed constitution, something like an Invisible Hand (and sometimes, surely, a visible foot) could turn opportunistic political behavior into responsible, statesmanlike, governance.

Of course, this is all probably irrelevant for those following the current election cycle in the US. Kant thought that cleverly designed rules for the game could handle greed. But all bets are off if either the devils running for office, or those whose votes they are courting, lack intelligence, understanding, or rationality. So, well, all bets are off then.

A time-traveling Kant would nonetheless be intrigued by the political biography of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. At least, if the account developed by Alec MacGillis, author of The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell, tracks the truth. In his recent attempt in The New York Times to explain McConnell’s tactics for the game of selecting and approving the appointment of a new justice to the Supreme Court, MacGillis portrays the Senate majority leader as exactly the kind of intelligent devil Kant had in mind.

The best way to understand Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. has been to recognize that he is not a conservative ideologue, but rather the epitome of the permanent campaign of Washington: What matters most isn’t so much what you do in office, but if you can win again.

As an aspiring young Republican — first, a Senate and Ford administration staff member and then county executive in Louisville — Mr. McConnell leaned to the moderate wing of his party on abortion rights, civil rights and many other issues. It was only when he ran for statewide office, for the Senate in 1984, that he began to really tack right. Mr. McConnell won by a razor-thin margin in a year when Ronald Reagan handily won Kentucky. The lesson was clear: He needed to move closer to Reagan, which he promptly did upon arriving in Washington.

From that point on, the priority was winning every six years and, once he’d made his way up the ranks of leadership, holding a Republican majority. In 1996, that meant voting for a minimum-wage increase to defuse a potential Democratic talking point in his re-election campaign. In 2006, as George W. Bush wrote in his memoir, it meant asking the president if he could start withdrawing troops from Iraq to improve the Republicans’ chance of keeping the Senate that fall, when Mr. McConnell was set to become its leader.

A year later, it meant ducking out of the intense debate on the Senate floor about immigration reform to avoid making himself vulnerable on the issue. It is no accident that the legislative issue Mr. McConnell has become most identified with, weakening campaign finance regulations, is one that pertains directly to elections.

This is also the best way to understand Mr. McConnell’s staunch opposition to the president: It is less about blocking liberal policy goals than about boosting Republican chances.

MacGillis concedes that McConnell’s tactical obstructionism has been successful on its own terms:

The resistance from Mr. McConnell has had an enormous influence on the shape of Obama’s presidency. It has limited the president’s accomplishments and denied him the mantle of the postpartisan unifier he sought back in 2008.

But the game isn’t over yet, and McGillis wonders whether McConnell has overplayed his hand in the aftermath of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

This blog does not really have a dog in that fight. We’re interested more in the concepts and categories we use to think through issues than we are (at least within this blog) in the political conclusions they lead to. My interest in McGillis’s portrait of McConnell is about the viability of Kant’s constitutional optimism. Some deliberately adversarial institutions — like Wimbledon tennis matches, courtroom law, markets without dangerously exploitable market failures — can licence the players to pursue their own interests in a contest with well designed rules and close monitoring for compliance. In these cases those outside “the game” will benefit even if the “players” care only about their own interests.

But can we possibly expect a modern democracy to work well, and justly, if the players vying for, and holding, office are all rational devils? Do the US Constitution and other defining features of the political infrastructure (such as the Federal Election Commission and the 50 different states’ laws for drawing up federal constituencies and voter-eligibility rules) constitute the kinds of rules that will, as Kant put it, convert selfish or evil private intentions into virtuous public conduct?

Even Mitch McConnell (thought not perhaps Francis Underwood) would surely agree that the answer to these questions is No. When this blog ponders politics, it will generally be to explore  “why not?” or “where, then, from here?”

spacey

 

 

 

Some of my favourite people are hacks

Hello, readers. I’m Alex DeForge, a philosophy PhD student at Duke University. I’ve spent a number of years working with non-profits, legal advocacy groups, labour unions, and political parties, so I feel somewhat justified in subjecting you to my commentary on these matters. I’ll be posting here from time to time.

A disclaimer on the following post: I have never worked for a politician that I thought was a hack. Needless to say, I haven’t worked for many politicians.


systemfail

       “Who are all these fuckin’… who are these hacks man?”

                   —  Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson,

                         City Council Meeting, July 8th, 2010

Yes, it was inappropriate for a Mayor to say this at a city council meeting, even if he didn’t realize his mike was still onRobertson apologizedHowever, for those of us that are not elected officials, this is often the right question to be asking when assessing our politicians. 

The urban dictionary says that a hack is “a person who is a professional at doing some sort of service, but does crappy work.” So, to determine if a politician is a hack, we have to determine what their job is and whether they are crappy at it.

In a democracy, politicians ply their trade in a deliberately adversarial arena. Joe Heath’s paper, an “An Adversarial Ethic for Business, outlines how in adversarial institutions, we can distinguish competitors’ goals within the competition from the aims of the competition. Applied to elections, our politicians are supposed to campaign with the goal of winning enough votes to be elected to legislative assembly — even though democratic elections themselves aim to select the best representatives of our interests for the purpose of making good social policy. However, after elections, our politicians are supposed to actually govern, which is to do the job of representing their constituents’ interests to create policy and law to serves those interests.

Politicians are supposed to try to win elections and to make good legislation. But because they need to do the first to be selected to do the second, our democratic system can reward tactics that are great for winning elections and terrible for making just legislation. And there is nothing in the structure of our democratic elections that stops us from electing politicians who are just really good at campaigning but crappy at governing.

We see graphs like this that represent senators’ tendencies toward disagreement over legislation. Sure, it might be the case that they are simply representing constituents’ increasingly polarized interests. Regardless, this sort of disagreement makes it difficult to get bills passed. So, even if our elected officials were voting to represent constituents’ interests, they could still be doing a crappy job of creating social policy.

Maybe I have been a little hard on our politicians. Do I think that all politicians are hacks? No. Some of my favourite people are politicians. 

But in all seriousness — a lot of them are hacks. 

 To be clear, I’m not claiming that all politicians are crappy at every aspect of their jobs. In fact, they seem to be very good at campaigning to win elections. What many of them are not good at, and maybe don’t even care about, is doing the “people’s work” that we supposedly elect them to do. It’s this failure that should lead us to ask, “who are these hacks man?”

Let’s revisit the Vancouver Mayor. Back in 2010, the Mayor’s center-left party, Vision, was part of an official coalition with the city’s far-left party, COPE. Vision realized that if they cooperated with the far-left in elections, they would gain the cooperation that they needed in post-election councils to get their municipal projects off the ground. This was a strategic move, too. By running a non-overlapping slate of candidates with COPE, Vision was able to gain the support and votes of Vancouver’s more liberal constituents. 

COPE eventually decided to end the coalition in 2013.

This is an interesting case study because Vision was able to garner votes by taking actions that were prudent for governing. It seems rare these days to find a political climate that rewards behavior that is strategic to good governance, and not just strategic to winning campaigns. 

We should worry that we are doing something wrong if we believe that our democratic elections are supposed to select for the best representatives for the purpose of governing — these days, it looks like we are selecting hacks. 

– Alex DeForge

Duke Student Government Elections: Students actively avoid adversarial tactics

While national democratic politics are generally adversarial, it turns out democratic politics in the context of student governments at American universities are not. Last week, the Duke Student Government held its annual debate for candidates running for student body president and vice president. The presidential candidates had very similar platforms, so the moderator spent most of the debate asking questions about their leadership styles. In a race where candidates differed on personal, rather than ideological, attributes, the candidates did surprisingly little to distinguish themselves from their opponents. None of the candidates directly criticized the other, and when asked to the name the biggest weaknesses of their opponents, one candidate declined to answer for sake of “constructive conversation.” Interestingly enough, the candidates were willing to scapegoat the school’s administrators on every issue.

Without any conflict, the debate lacked entertainment, for sure—but also substantive value. The platforms of all the candidates were vague and inflated, and they all got away with inaccurate statements. The candidates had plenty of opportunities to go after each other, but none of them did.

Much of this lack of conflict can be explained by the candidates’ relationships to one another. At the end of the campaign, the candidates will inevitably see each other again in class or at a party. They don’t have the luxury of returning to their home states or hiding behind a camera. The candidates have to directly confront each other, and a contention taken the wrong way would make future interactions awkward. On the national stage, it is easy to call your opponent a flip-flopper. On a cafeteria stage in front of a group of peers, a comment with even the slightest contrast can be taken offensively.

In some ways, a government where members are sensitive to conflict will be a government with a lot of mutual respect and cooperation. However, less conflict means fewer substantive policies are crafted on the campaign trail, and candidates win with broad promises without a map to completion. Additionally, voters cannot make informed decisions—without the ability to compare differing platforms or leadership styles, voters inevitably base their decisions on recommendations from peers and name recognition.

At the end of the debate, the uncontested candidate for vice president lambasted the presidential candidates for their remarks about the administration (see it here at 1:00:35), and the audience responded with hoots and applause. The candidates may not like conflict, but the voters sure do.

American Politics: Are We Still Playing the Same Game?

Of all the rhetoric that we have heard during this Republican primary, it is perhaps this comment from Rick Santorum that is the most perplexing:

“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college.  What a snob.  I understand why he wants you to go to college.  He wants to remake you in his image.”

While Barack Obama’s intention behind the comment was not explicitly to promote a liberal education – but merely to suggest that education, whether it is technical, vocational, preprofessional, or liberal is, on balance, a benefit – Santorum’s disgust for ‘liberal academia’ is quite transparent.  Is this attitude antithetical to the foundations of our democratic society?  Or, to put it another way, are American politicians still playing the same game?

Politics, if it is a game, should be played according to a set of tactical, regulative, and constitutive rules.  Tactical rules are the strategies that are employed by a team or player in an effort to win the game.  For example, if I am playing chess, my opening move won’t be white pawn from h2-h3, since that doesn’t make any strategic sense whatsoever within a normal chess game.  Regulative rules are those guidelines that keep each side from gaining an unfair advantage, or exploiting loopholes that might exist due to the way the constitutive rules are described or set.  It is possible to break regulative rules and still be playing the same game.  The constitutive rules, by contrast, are what defines the game itself, and changing them entails playing another game altogether.  You are not playing chess if, for example, you declare that your winning the game is a result of you, yourself, being checkmated.

To see whether or not American politicians are still playing the same game, it is helpful to get an idea of what the goal of politics actually is.  Is the goal simply to win — to be elected President, for example — at all costs?  Probably not, since we wouldn’t want a presidential candidate to win by intentionally sabotaging the country, for example.  Indeed, this strategy would be contrary to the very purpose of the office for which the candidate is running.  We might say that the point of the political process is to elect someone into a position of public power who promotes the general welfare of the people.

Is this goal consistent with the de-valuing of, or hostility towards, a liberal education?  Historically, a liberal education was a privilege of the elite, or landed gentry – when one’s income was secure, it was appropriate to be educated in rhetoric so as to become an active, engaged citizen, who could not only make arguments, but listen and assess the arguments of others.  In contemporary civil society, it seems like education supports the democratic process, insofar as it exposes individuals to different points of view, and teaches them to critically assess those views, both for their strengths and weaknesses.  In this way, a liberal education promotes tolerance and recognition of divergent values; and so also promotes other-regarding virtues that are necessary for solidarity, and, by extension, the flourishing of a democratic society.  The major difference, of course, is that in our contemporary context, a liberal education is generally democratized among all classes; it is no longer a privilege of the few, nor should it be.

Even if President Obama’s point was to encourage a liberal education (which it was not), would this be so terrible?  I do not see what is so offensive about cultivating a population comprised of well-informed, educated citizens.  Santorum, however, seems to want to foster a climate of distrust and intolerance of opposing views, which might be fine if the goal of politics is to win at all costs.  However, insofar as the solidarity necessary for well-functioning democratic societies is secured best through education, then it seems that conservatives like Santorum would benefit from remembering the constitutive rules of the political game.  Sometimes a win for a particular candidate is a loss for American society, and I do not think that such a loss is consistent with the point of the political process.

I think we’d all do well to remember James Madison and Federalist #10 here, where Madison talks of factions and their threat to the common good.  Of course, to remember lessons from the Federalist Papers, we have to have read them, and what better place than within the academy itself?