Hobbled from the start

How can George W. Bush convince Americans to trust him when he has dismissed such notions as truth and justice?

By Alan Wolfe

Published December 15, 2000 11:10PM (EST)

Political campaigns are about power: who gets it, why and how, as the political scientist Harold Lasswell once put it. No presidential campaign in America can take place without one or another self-proclaimed Machiavelli reminding those who will listen that power is its own reward.

Yet Americans care relatively little about which candidate wins and a great deal about what kind of person he is and what sorts of policies he will pursue. In that sense, political campaigns are about ideas. During campaigns, candidates condense a particular point of view about the world and try to build a majority around it. Not Machiavelli, but the great ethical and moral philosophers of the West, from Plato to John Stuart Mill, posed timeless questions of truth, justice, and right and wrong that all political candidates, however hesitatingly, have to try to answer.

The presidential campaign of 2000 managed to keep philosophy fairly well hidden. Afraid that any traits of character could later be used as evidence of bad character, both Al Gore and George W. Bush refused to offer even a glimpse of themselves as flesh-and-blood human beings, obfuscating any hints of how their personal attributes might translate into conceptions of the right way to act. Seeking to rally their base while attracting as many of the undecided voters as possible, both chose reiteration over reflection, avoiding statements of principle and purpose at any cost.

This was a campaign so scripted that no debate, press conference or gaffe could deter the candidates from remaining, as they liked to say, on message.

How extraordinary, then, that the most predictable presidential campaign in American history was followed by the most unpredictable finish of our times. Facing a tie vote that no one anticipated, Democratic and Republican operatives found themselves having to react quickly and spontaneously to real-world events, and to do so without the benefit of focus groups and tracking polls. And what we saw as a result, beyond the endless discussions of tactics and endgames, were hints about the underlying philosophies of each camp.

Take, for example, the question of truth. For more than 2,000 years, Western philosophy has been premised on the notion that it is possible to make accurate claims about what is true. At one level, of course, politics has little to do with the pursuit of truth as philosophers understand it: candidates for office are not expected to say what they really believe and, once in office, they would be remiss if they did not disguise their intentions and confuse their enemies. During the campaign, both George W. Bush and Al Gore proved themselves adept at that kind of politics; understanding full well that voters might not like the actual details of their tax cuts or plans for Social Security and prescription drug benefits, they adopted the rosiest economic assumptions or simply ignored discrepancies. Had the campaign ended with a clear victory for either man, he would have taken office as just one more politician who was less than forthright in his campaign.

In the campaign's aftermath, Gore, relentless in his quest to challenge the Florida secretary of state's certification of the election, necessarily upheld the proposition that the truth of who had won could be established. Bush, by contrast, revealed something deeper than the typical politician's willingness to manipulate the truth for his own purposes. In his determined effort to prevent anyone from ever knowing who actually won the state, he implicitly endorsed the notion that there was no truth even worth manipulating. When promulgated by left-wing academics skeptical of truth claims held to be timeless and universal -- such claims, they argued, denied the proclivity of dominant groups to impose their values on the oppressed or the marginalized -- postmodern skepticism has faced derisive rebuttal from political conservatives. But when it was expressed by George W. Bush and his supporters in their efforts to explain why it was unnecessary to count votes, conservatives applauded. Bush will be our first truly postmodern president, the first of whom it can be said that when asked how he came to be the winner, he can respond that it all depends on the perspective one brings to the question.

We know, because President Clinton reminded us, that politicians who lie too flagrantly are hobbled in their exercise of authority, for if they are willing to lie under oath or in front of a camera, why should we ever believe them again? Yet the very fact Bill Clinton was caught in a lie underscored truth's priority. Only when we agreed that something happened in that case -- that Clinton had an affair with an intern -- could we punish Clinton. As a postmodern president, Bush will face a challenge to his authority far greater than Clinton's, for the foundation of his legitimacy will hinge on the proposition that ultimately it did not matter whether his victory was real or not.

A president elected in a world beyond truth and falsity will not find it easy to govern. For all the manipulation and dishonesty associated with politics, there are moments, usually a country's finest, when political leaders express a truth upon which all people of goodwill can agree. When Franklin Roosevelt rallied domestic support for American involvement in World War II, he did not suggest that the Japanese may have bombed Pearl Harbor; he spoke movingly of the fact that they did. And when the war ended, the truth of the Nazi genocide made it clear to all but the fanatic few why the tremendous number of lives taken in the war was justified.

Without truth, in the end, there can be no politics. There can be no purpose that requires government to take action for the collective good.

The campaign after the campaign also told us much about the way the winner thinks about another perennial question of philosophy: the meaning of justice. Justice is merely the interest of the stronger, says Thrasymachus, a character in Plato's "Republic," and ever since, philosophers have tried to show why Thrasymachus was wrong. Their answers have varied, but from the 18th century German Immanuel Kant to the 20th century American John Rawls, one answer has had strong support: Justice consists in doing what is right irrespective of whether we stand to benefit personally or not. Both philosophers demonstrated their point by developing ingenious thought experiments that ask us to consider how others unknown to us might act under the same circumstances.

As with the truth, we do not expect saintly behavior from our political candidates: The end, for them, invariably justifies the means. Yet a tied election offers a perfect opportunity to consider what justice requires: Since each man knows that but for a butterfly ballot his position could be interchanged with that of his opponent, it is relatively easy for each to understand the gist of the other's position. Indeed, both candidates were willing to take the identical positions of their opponents when it suited them: asking, for example, that the intent of the voter count when Democratic votes were at stake but not when absentee ballots were missing an identification number, or claiming federal courts should resolve the dispute in some circumstances but not others.

One might expect, therefore, that Vice President Gore and Gov. Bush would each have considered the conditions under which his own victory would have been viewed as unfair by the other man. Although both men fought to the bitter end, only Gore acknowledged there were conditions under which he would recognize his opponent's victory, no matter how sure he was of his own claim to the office. For Bush and his entourage, by contrast, Thrasymachus said it all: They were the stronger; therefore their claims were the most just. On the question of truth, Bush showed himself a postmodernist. On the question of justice, he reverted back to the pre-modern Athenians.

It is not so surprising that Bush identifies justice with strength. Kant and Rawls developed their ideals of impartial justice to undermine claims by monarchs or autocrats that unearned privilege could nonetheless be justified. By background and temperament, Bush belongs to a tradition of noblesse oblige in which aristocrats dispense justice as they see fit, not as universal standards demand. From such a worldview, loyalty counts for more than justice; indeed among the virtues, loyalty and justice are opposites. Only by demonstrating his immunity to claims of fairness does the acolyte prove his loyalty to the chief. And no better indicator of loyalty can exist than those personal ties of kinship so distrusted by Kant and Rawls. Bush put his faith not in a just outcome, but in a brother in Florida and a cousin at Fox News.

As president, Bush will have to deal with people with whom he shares no ties of blood or even belonging. How will he understand them? The power of justice does not lie in taking the concerns of others as our own; a president who tries to feel everyone's pain cannot distinguish between illness and hypochondria. Justice only asks us to allow the claims of those foreign to us be judged against commonly agreed-upon standards. A president unwilling to acknowledge that a fellow citizen, whether Republican or Democrat, has a claim to victory is unlikely ever to understand why Europeans, Asians and Africans might believe their concerns about global warming, disease and poverty have warrant. When loyalty counts more than justice, we can be sure that parochialism will guide our affairs more than principle.

Ethics -- doing what is right, shunning what is wrong -- is a third preoccupation of philosophy whose contours can be revealed in an unscripted election campaign. At times of widespread religious belief, God's commands are usually understood as the foundation of ethics: Murder and adultery are wrong because they are forbidden by the Ten Commandments. In the pre-Florida phase of the campaign, both Sen. Joe Lieberman and Bush invoked their religious beliefs to make the point that they were ethical people with a strongly inscribed sense of right and wrong.

So long as the campaign was scripted, candidates had numerous occasions for the proper expressions of piety, such as speeches in church or invocations of compassionate conservatism. But when the script was torn up, we could see the degree to which their religious pronouncements influenced their conduct. For all his single-minded determination to win, Lieberman, perhaps because his God knows something of vengeance, never seemed a hypocrite. Such was not the case with Bush.

Not once during the campaign after the campaign did we see Bush display Christian virtues. His early triumphalism conveyed the exact opposite of Christ's humility. He could barely hide his inability to forgive his brother for messing up Florida. No sense of charity could be detected among his zealous supporters. He chose not to consort with the meek and the lame. Whatever his words, Bush's acts proved that we do indeed live in a post-Christian society in which agreement on what is ethical and what is not can no longer be deduced from common religious texts.

Had George W. Bush won the election on election night, we would have reason to worry that he would turn into a Republican Jimmy Carter: a man willing to allow his faith to interfere with the realpolitik his office demands. Now that the campaign after the campaign reveals a man so unmoved by any sense of Christian ethics, we face the danger of a man whose conduct will be governed by no ethical commandments at all. Americans have never been able to make up their minds whether they want their politicians guided by ethics or efficiency. Now they know that, when it comes to favorite philosophers, their new president is guided more by Machiavelli than by Jesus. For those who worry about the separation of church and state, relax: Neither President Bush, nor any of his key aides, will be able to invoke Christian piety and sound believable.

The election of 2000 showed us how bitterly ideological and self-interested our political class can be. Yet given how empty of meaning our campaigns have become, the events leading up to the December Supreme Court decision did a favor for the entire country. Finally Americans had a chance to witness why politics, in both its tactical and its philosophical sense, matters. It is too bad that they had to cast their votes before the actual campaign took place. Perhaps on some future occasion they will once again be reminded that when we choose our leaders, we also choose our way of life.

Alan Wolfe

Alan Wolfe is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. The author and editor of more than twenty books, he is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Harper’s, and the Atlantic. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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