Our Unprincipled Politics—A Commentary by Stephen L. Carter ’79
Our Unprincipled Politics
By Stephen L. Carter ’79
My late father taught me that what defines a principle is the willingness to adhere to it even when that adherence hurts. Maybe that’s why the newfound appreciation of the Electoral College among many of my friends on the left has struck me as a weirdly compelling spectacle.
After the 2000 election, when George W. Bush lost the popular vote but (after the Florida debacle) won a majority of Electoral College votes, liberal commentators spent years calling for the direct election of the president. Now that there appears to be a serious prospect that President Barack Obama will lose the popular vote but win a majority of the electors, the Electoral College doesn’t look so bad.
Now, don’t worry. This isn’t another column about the virtues or vices of the Electoral College. My concern is with principle -- principle in the sense in which my father used the word; a tradition that goes back to Aristotle. When we accuse someone of being “unprincipled,” it is a special sort of condemnation. We are calling him a man of poor character, who acts to gain advantage instead of in accordance with some higher ethical code.
When politicians and their supporters refer to “principles,” they usually don’t mean it in the sense that Aristotle or my father did. “I’ll preserve Social Security” or “I’ll never raise taxes” aren’t statements about fundamental beliefs. At best, they are examples of conclusions to which one might reason from fundamental beliefs. Probably, however, they aren’t even that -- they are simply lines that have tested well with focus groups.
Abraham Lincoln understood the distinction. In his Cooper Union address, a year before he assumed the presidency, Lincoln had this to say to his opponents in the South: “If we do repel you by any wrong principle or practice, the fault is ours; but this brings you to where you ought to have started -- to a discussion of the right or wrong of our principle.”
A principle, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is “that from which something originates or is derived; a source, an origin; the root”; or, in the definition most of us will find more common, “a fundamental truth or proposition on which others depend . . . a primary assumption forming the basis of a chain of reasoning.” This is the sense in which Lincoln used the word.
Subsidiary to that definition is one that mirrors what my father had in mind: “A general law or rule adopted or professed as a guide to action; a settled ground or basis of conduct or practice; a fundamental motive or reason for action, esp. one consciously recognized and followed.”
The advantage of understanding principle this way is that the principle in question can be expressed. We can tell each other what we most fundamentally believe, what settled ground guides our conduct.
Lincoln’s point was that the argument over slavery wasn’t, in the first instance, an argument over government policy. It was an argument over what principles should serve as the basis for policy. What my father added -- and what I earnestly believe -- is that a genuine principle entails the possibility of sacrifice, including sacrifice of one’s own interest, or of the interest of party or faction.
In an episode from the second season of the television show “The West Wing,” President Josiah Bartlet is trying to get the Senate to ratify a treaty banning certain nuclear tests. An election intervenes, and a Pennsylvania Democrat who is a key “yes” vote is defeated. The treaty has little chance of passage in the new Senate. The president’s advisers urge him to call a lame-duck session to allow the outgoing Senate to vote.
But the defeated senator announces that he will abstain. Pressed by the White House, he explains that he lost his seat largely over the treaty. The people voted him in; the people voted him out. He refuses to assume, he says, that Pennsylvania voters are stupid. They considered and rejected his views, and he will not demean them by voting “yes” after his defeat.
At work here is a very large principle -- larger than the senator’s support for the treaty. The principle is to respect the results of elections, and not to use cute little devices to get around them.
Respect for the constitutional order might also be a principle. As readers of this column know, I have an enormous affection for our Constitution with all its intricacy. True, the document once contained much that was invidious and destructive, but those provisions have largely been swept away. What remains, although imperfect, is a paean to a vision of government that recognizes that the good guys will not always hold power. Getting things done is therefore difficult by design.
Alas, our major parties ignore the design whenever convenient. The current administration, for example, has used a deliberate misreading of the “recess appointment” clause to put into office individuals who would never have been confirmed by the Senate. The previous administration relied heavily on executive “signing statements” as a means of specifying that the president, having signed a bill, actually intended to enforce only some parts and not others.
Such actions as these barely make a ripple in the headlines, but they are fundamental assaults on any sense of government as proceeding from constitutional principle. They favor instead expediency -- the notion that what matters most is getting our way. Principle in the sense that my father had in mind is rarely mentioned any longer.
Every time the party in power, Democratic or Republican, changes the rules to make it easier to gain its own ends, respect for principle is eroded. Every time a candidate cuts an ethical corner for the sake of advantage, respect for principle is eroded. Every time we make excuses (“The election is too important!”) for candidates who run unethical campaigns, respect for principle is eroded.
Too much of life nowadays revolves around the notion that self-interest is a principle. It isn’t. It’s just an animal instinct -- a useful one, to be sure, in the functioning of markets, but a dangerous one to unleash on an entire society. When we fret about the epidemic of academic cheating, for example, what we are really seeing is the predictable result of the abandonment of principle by we adults who are supposed to be setting an example.
Yes, we can import into our politics Vince Lombardi’s adage, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Or we can try, as my wife and I have, to teach our children what my parents tried to teach me: Except in time of war, victory isn’t a principle. If we don’t believe this, it’s time to hunker down and stop pretending that the American experiment can succeed.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and his most recent novel is “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” The opinions expressed are his own.)