It’s Not Over, Even If You Have the High Ground

Injecting morality in politics is all well and good until it leads to a standstill

Photo credit: Haydn/wheelzwheeler (Flickr), “Occupy movement gathering at St. Paul’s..19.11.2011”

Based off recent talking points from the left and the right you may be inclined to believe that morality is finally making a comeback in politics. Soundbites heard from either President Trump or newly sworn in Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez do indeed point to its renewal as a tool of politicking.

Ocasio-Cortez, when defending herself from criticism about factual inaccuracies, drew a clear -if mistaken- dichotomy: “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” [1]); Trump in his Oval Office address earlier this month used a similarly oriented rhetoric: “ Some have suggested a barrier is immoral. (…)The only thing that is immoral is the politicians to do nothing and continue to allow more innocent people to be so horribly victimized.” [2]

Trump’s full address was chock full of pathos, clearly attempting to pull on the heartstrings of his audience -phrases such as “a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul”, among others, were particularly heavy with such meaning. Lamenting the ordeal facing illegal immigrants, noting the horrid conditions that awaited women and children in particular trying to enter the country, the idea was clearly to paint such a picture that it would seem morally right to put a stop to people trying to cross the border, both for those inside the country and those outside.

Whether you agree or not with either Ocasio-Cortez or Trump is largely irrelevant; what’s important here is that morality is seemingly becoming a crutch to prop up policy. Seemingly, because the idea of a ‘revival’ of morality in politics is in fact, nothing new, though some outlets may seek to use the concept every so often, to the point of sounding like broken records. [3][4].

Morality and politics have been intertwined for quite some time, and are at the core of many of the most contentious questions that divide the US political landscape into heavily partisan issues, to the point that some divides have increased in recent years [5].

If we take a look at some of the most divisive issues, we can start to see a battle of morality at play. Take the long-running debate on abortion: Pro-lifers argue from the standpoint that all -human, for the sake of this particular debate- life is sacred and should not be taken lightly, if at all; Pro-choicers on the other hand believe that women as individuals must have the right to decide what happens to their body. Both arguments are firmly grounded in morality.

So it goes for immigration as we’ve mentioned above, but also gun control. In fact, one of the underlying rifts between the two sides (that of the importance of the federal government in regulating life across the US) can even be viewed as part of this trend: Proponents of a bigger government presumably believe that its duty is to regulate what society at large deems just -thus becoming the expression of that society’s morals- while the other side argues that it would be immoral to infringe upon individual States’ rights as an extension of the core societal value of individual liberty.

While the above points are simplifications, they nonetheless point out that questions of morality do tend to permeate political debates across the board. “Even economic issues are quickly swallowed by this quagmire, devolving to talking points about “welfare queens” on the right and heartless corporate greed on the left.”

However, injecting ethics in politics is a quick fix with diminishing returns. Morality tends to put an end to debate before it even begins. If you believe that you are arguing from the moral high ground, whatever the opposing side can say will never factor in your perspective as heavily; no counterpoint or nuance in argument is possible because it would be, by definition, morally wrong to heed any of it.

Then, it can quickly become counterproductive to try and uphold morality at all costs, if only in a political context; politics is after all an art of compromise, at the very least in democratic societies. It will always be impossible to please every single person living in a given nation, there will always be people who are against whatever you may stand for -for varying reasons not exclusively moral, of course.

We have to make sacrifices to dearly held principles whenever possible not only because it is almost a requirement of the democratic process, but also because if we don’t nothing ever gets done -I don’t need to remind anyone of the current government shutdown, hopefully.

Understandably, reneging on principles isn’t particularly pleasant to consider. Yet, take a cue from international relations: very few people or nations would agree to a single country trying to impose their will under the pretense that they held the key to organizing the world into moral perfection.

Observing domestic politics through the prism of international relations is an interesting avenue: Here, I would like to borrow some maxims from renowned international relations scholar Hans J. Morgenthau, who was a realist -in the sense that he believed, roughly speaking, that human nature was at the core of all political behaviour, and that human nature was -to put it delicately- the infinite capacity for evil.

In Politics Among Nations, first published in 1948, the concluding chapters discuss ideas of diplomacy, which for the purposes of the article we will adapt to the American political landscape [6]. Now more than ever, this appears crucial: Democrats and Republicans are speaking past each other, especially when it comes to principle, if not outright speaking foreign languages to one another. With that in mind the analogy between US politics and international relations should become more relevant.

He developed a series of nine “rules” for the conduct of diplomacy, four of which I would like to consider, as follows: “Diplomacy Must be Divested of the Crusading Spirit”; “Nations Must Be Willing to Compromise on All Issues That Are Not Vital to Them”; “Give Up the Shadow of Worthless Rights for the Substance of Real Advantage”; “Never Put Yourself in a Position from Which You Cannot Retreat without Losing Face and from Which You Cannot Advance without Grave Risks”

The crusading spirit and the shadow of worthless rights, which are understood by Morgenthau as respectively “nationalistic universalism”, and “[thinking] in legalistic and propagandistic terms” (that lead to the impossibility of compromise), can here be used as a stand-in for moral politics.

The other maxims, work in respective pairs with the first two: Universalism in doctrine leads to the conclusion that everything is vital (which is highly dangerous); Being too preoccupied with defending the ‘right’ rights inevitably leads to a political brick wall (you will back yourself into a corner by insisting exclusively on moralilty and not realizing you are actually losing the battle).

Taken as a whole, the four give the soundest advice possible: Moderation. By no means should morality disappear from politics. Morgenthau realized that, but he also recognized that it was wishful thinking to use it as your only weapon. Rather, he advocated for politics of prudence, an aspiration to the least possible evil, if you will, rather than the best possible good.

This cannot be taken as political panacea, obviously, but it could be more useful than wearing principles as a mask of stubbornness, and certainly is a necessary approach to accomplishing anything whatsoever, particularly in countries with such overwhelmingly binary divides as the US.

The more diverse and fragmented the political landscape is, the easier it gets to form coalitions and accept compromise. If we learned anything from the Cold War, it’s that when only two players matter in the game of politics, stability, peace, and consensus, are among the first casualties.

1. Chris Cillizza, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s very slippery slope on facts”, CNN, January 10, 2019
2. Gina Martinez, “Read the Full Transcript of President Trump’s Oval Office Address on the Border Wall”, Time, January 9, 2019
3. Julian Baggini, “Why politicians are making morality fashionable again”, The Guardian, July 24, 2012
4. “How the American left is rediscovering morality”, The Guardian, August 4, 2018
5. Frank Newport, Andrew Dugan, “Partisan Differences Growing on a Number of Issues”, Gallup, August 3, 2017
6. Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, Chapter 25 ‘The Future of Diplomacy’, 1948

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