Tuesday, April 28, 2015

People who seem icky and situations that are distasteful

Dove and snake in Canterbury Cathedral. Probably not intended as a representation of the ideal politician's mind.

World famous political scientist David Brooks is intrigued by the data:
There was an interesting poll result about Hillary Clinton last week. According to a Quinnipiac poll, 60 percent of independent voters believe that she has strong leadership qualities. But when these same voters were asked if she is honest and trustworthy, the evaluations flipped. Sixty-one percent said she is not honest and trustworthy. Apparently there are a lot of Americans who believe that Hillary Clinton is dishonest and untrustworthy but also a strong leader.
I'd say it's rather more interesting that only 51% of the independents had an unfavorable opinion of HRC (43% favorable, 3% don't know). This pattern is rather stronger over the sample as a whole (Democrats, Republicans, and independents), where she scores 46% to 47% on favorability, and an appalling 38% to 54% on honesty. Thus there would seem to be a lot more Americans who feel that she is dishonest but don't see that as a reason to have an unfavorable opinion. "Sure she's dishonest, but does that make her a bad person?"

Or maybe-just-maybe answering "no" to the question "is she honest and trustworthy?" is not exactly the same as answering "yes" to the question "is she dishonest?" (which wasn't asked). I for one can easily imagine saying "no, she's not quite trustworthy, is she?" but I'd hesitate to say, "you're right, she can't be trusted." I have a sense they're all trimmers and equivocators, in what is laughably called public life, from Mitch McConnell, you know, all the way to Elizabeth Warren, but some of them are genuinely interested in doing the right thing if it's convenient, and their idea of what is the right thing may have something in common with your own. Hillary perhaps shares some of the lovable rascalliness of Bill. In January 2001 Bill Clinton was running 68% approval, the highest ever for a departing president, but 58% answered "no" to the honest and trustworthy question in a CNN poll.

My favorite result from the new Quinnipiac, though, is on the question of investigating Clinton's use of a private email account for State Department business: 51% think a congressional investigation is politically motivated, as opposed to 44% who think it's justified; but 53% to 43% support it anyway. The majority think the Republicans are dishonest in proposing it, in other words, but let's do it. Americans at their best, no snark—unlike David Brooks, they see a little room in the world for moral ambiguity.
Let’s set aside her specific case for a second. 
If by "a second" you mean 14 paragraphs, or all but the column's windup.
These poll results raise a larger question: Can you be a bad person but a strong leader?
No, they don't. You're not paying attention. (1) The polls do not suggest that HRC is a bad person, or that Americans think she is a bad person. She continues to be the nation's most admired woman, as she has been almost uninterruptedly since 1993; we just think she's a little slippery. (2) We've known the answer for literally millennia, though we might have to move to the 20th century for examples we can easily agree on, starting with, say, Mussolini.

Well, maybe not, because Brooks is a fascist himself, equating strength with goodness. That's why the poll got him so bothered, because it seems to him like a paradox: Wait, Hillary's strong but she's morally questionable? How would that even work? Where I would use "strong leader" to mean someone who's, you know, strong, he's using it to mean someone who's effectively good: Can you be a bad person but a good leader?
The case for that proposition is reasonably straightforward. Politics is a tough, brutal arena. People play by the rules of the jungle. Sometimes to get anything done, a leader has to push, bully, intimidate, elide the truth. The qualities that make you a good person in private life — kindness, humility and a capacity for introspection — can be drawbacks on the public stage.
But in the long run, bad people are never strong, in Brooks's haunted mind:
outside the make-believe world of “House of Cards,” it’s usually wrong. Voting for someone with bad private morals is like setting off on a battleship with awesome guns and a rotting hull. There’s a good chance you’re going to sink before the voyage is over.
Well, let's just wait for the fourth season, Brooksy, I have a feeling some retribution is on its way. Or as Miss Prism put it,
The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.
However, he's just getting started with his own awesome guns:
People who are dishonest, unkind and inconsiderate have trouble attracting and retaining good people to their team. They tend to have sleazy friends.
That was Capone's problem: recruiting. If only he'd had a better accountant!
They may be personally canny, but they are almost always surrounded by sycophants and second-raters who kick up scandal and undermine the leader’s effectiveness.
I never thought of Nixon as being unkind, just awkward.
Leaders who lack humility are fragile. Their pride is bloated and sensitive.
Pause to picture a fragile person wrapped in a bloated, sensitive pride.
People are never treating them as respectfully as they think they deserve. They become consumed with resentments.
That reminds me of somebody!
They treat politics as battle, armor up and wall themselves off to information and feedback.
That's not as bad as walling yourself off from information and feedback. Or aren't we speaking English any more?
You may think they are championing your cause or agenda, but when the fur is flying, they are really only interested in defending themselves. 
And so on, just on and on, all generalities and all fiction, unless it really is strictly about Nixon (the bad leader keeps an enemies list, settles scores and imagines conspiracies, and sooner or later his Watergate will come), like a 19th-century temperance tract substituting politics for demon rum. You'll end up in the gutter, with a social disease! Your children will flee you! They'll cross your name out in the family Bible!

Until he finally gets down to the alternative:
You can’t intimidate people by chopping your enemies to bits in the town square. Even the presidency isn’t a powerful enough office to allow a leader to rule by fear. You have to build coalitions by appealing to people’s self-interest and by luring them voluntarily to your side.
Like how could a Clinton manage something like that?
People with good private morality are better at navigating for the long term. They genuinely love causes beyond themselves. When the news cycle distracts and the short-term passions surge, they can still steer by that distant star.
If only he knew how much he loves Obama, huh?
They have an aesthetic revulsion against people who seem icky and situations that are distasteful, which heads off a lot of trouble.
No, that's really a person who shouldn't be in politics.
most effective leaders — like, say, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill — had a dual consciousness. They had an earnest, inner moral voice capable of radical self-awareness, rectitude and great compassion. They also had a pragmatic, canny outer voice. These two voices were in constant conversation, checking each other, probing for synthesis, wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.
Jeez, Brooks, you just did the double-minded thing a couple of weeks ago, about Lincoln! And it still sounds like mental illness. And Churchill? Definitely a strong leader, and a valuable one in the 1940s, but a horrible human being, racist and serial war criminal from Malakand in 1897 to Dresden in 1945, indeed an elegant counterexample to this whole immeasurably stupid thesis. (I'd like to think the 1945 elections were a punishment from God, but then he was back in office, a demented drug and alcohol addict, in 1951.)

You want your president to be somewhat strong and somewhat good, obviously, and somewhat active (hello, Dr. Osgood!), but you need to recognize that they're not all the same thing, and at the same time ensure that the president isn't suffering from untreated bipolar disorder, because that could be dangerous.

And innocent as a dove? Talk about people who seem icky! I'm checking out.
I don’t know if Hillary Clinton possesses this double-mindedness.
Christ, I hope not. Though every word you say makes me less unenthusiastic about the prospect of voting for her.

Driftglass wonders if he's starting his own new church. Also a splendid tirade by Tom Levenson. Mr. Pierce does to a fawning Wapo review of The Road to Character what Esther and Mordecai did to Haman (capital punishment via well-chosen quotation).

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