On Super Tuesday, while commentators, coworkers, friends and family may debate the policies, pasts and perceptions of the Democratic hopefuls, the Clinton-Sanders contest remains essentially about one thing: how people of ethics deal with power when power is so often unethical.
You want an effective leader to put policies in place, but the very experience that makes politicians effective also tends to make them less ethical and less likely to support the policies you want. A Buzzfeed post on Super Tuesday summed it up quite colorfully:
Hillary Clinton – The presumptive favourite, the establishment choice, determined to avenge her 2008 defeat by Barack Obama. Eighty-nine per cent likely to be Illuminati.
Bernie Sanders – The eccentric uncle in a film about a group of kids who have to put on a show to save their community centre from being shut down by property developers.
The compromised insider vs. the kindly but ineffectual long shot.
This reputation has been the bane of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Not that she is especially unethical. There have been politicians more and less transparent, more and less cozy with big money and with dealings that skirt the law. Most voters know politics is grisly business. We recognize the seamy side and pick a candidate whose better sides we like. In short, we vote for a candidate in spite of the flaws. As one millennial supporter recently told the New Republic’s Adam Peck, “I am willing to say Sanders has been a little hypocritical when it comes to guns, but it is not enough to make my support waver.”
But votes for Hillary come, at least in part, because of her flaws—because her flaws (big money coziness, dubious legalities) come from the experience that makes her effective. Of course that effective-making experience is why others hesitate to vote for her.
One thing Democrats agree on is that the nation can’t afford more gridlock. No matter what they think the source is—the Republican right not cooperating with its own center, let alone with Democrats, the Republicans’ rightward move since Nixon’s southern strategy, their own party’s inability to leverage congressional majorities into legislation—the Democrats want a president who can get their policies through Congress and “persuade” even Republicans trained under the great strategists-cum-strong-armers, Karl Rove, Paul Weyrich, and Ralph Reed. And to do that, they need someone who can wield power.
The last Democratic king of clout was Lyndon Johnson. Twenty-four years in Congress and knowing where all the skeletons were buried gave his famous “Johnson treatment” that unfakable menace. He is purported to have said that he didn’t trust a man unless he had the man’s pecker in his pocket—which he often did. That got civil rights legislation and Great Society programs through a Congress far more racist and sexist than today’s.
But it could be ugly going.
The Clintons have some of that power sense, which is the up and downside. Do Democrats vote for Hillary because she’s got the clout to implement party policy—even if that clout comes with big-money, big-lobby dealings and dubious donations and ethics? Said another way: if you vote for a “purer” Sanders, who has less muscle and less likelihood of getting policies passed, have you done the right and ethical thing for the body politic?
The problem of effective power and ineffective purity goes back to the Greeks and to the canny authors of the Bible, who can be read in a number of ways. One is to look at the plain words on the page (an approach that emerged from Protestantism’s mandate that the text be read by each person for herself), while another is not to read it as a surface text—as a set of instructions to carry out—but as a “problem set” to work ethics through. Readers who take this latter line find quite a bit on the power-purity problem.
Consider David, about whom the book of Samuel has nothing good to say. A power broker, warrior, murderer, adulterer, liar and schemer, David is nevertheless left by God as the premier secular power. He’s effective but smarmy. Nathan, the prophet, is the enduring moral voice. The political and moral spheres are split, and the bottom line is this: we could act ethically in the political sphere, which would mean better politics and less conflict between that world and our moral standards. But as long as we don’t, we will be split. The gap between moral aims and politics is the outcome of the societies and politics we make.
That point was clear already in Judges, where increasing political chaos led to calls for a stabilizing king who would supposedly stanch the mayhem. But involvement in mayhem, even to quiet it, embroils Saul in turf wars, vendettas, and Nixonian paranoia. It is again the prophet Samuel who is the bearer of ethics, the first in the line of “prophetic voices” for justice from outside the seats of power. Politics and ethics are again split—as they remain into the New Testament. It is because they are at odds that Paul says we are to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and turn to the important task of building the religious community as a “contrast society” to the injustice of the political sphere.
Grassroots organizing and voting are opportunities for the exercise of the prophetic voice, efforts to bring ethics to public policy from outside government. Which returns us to the power-purity question: for those who find Democratic policies more ethical than Republican, do you vote for Hillary because she’s got the muscle most able to implement them—though that muscle comes with big business “connections,” “donations,” and “dealings” of dubious ethics that might get in the way of the policies you want—or do you vote for Sanders because his positions are perhaps closer to your ideal?
In monarchies and dictatorships, politics and ethics may also be split, but a populace without the franchise can stick to its ethics since it has little role in governance. Pure and powerless. Democracies, having given people power, confront us with politics and ethics together every time we vote.