Michael Gerson: How tribal politics curse us with tribal morality
WASHINGTON — America is currently cursed, not only with tribal politics, but with tribal morality. Some liberals tend to minimize or excuse offenses against a few women in the broader cause of women’s rights. What is a politician’s wandering hand in comparison to maintaining legal abortion? Some conservatives tend to minimize or excuse offenses against women in the cause of conservative governance. What are a few old accusations compared to cementing a conservative Supreme Court or passing tax reform?
Both sides give personal failings less weight than a compelling public good. It is not always an unserious argument, but in this case, it is a cruel and dangerous one.
This description may sound like a columnist’s caricature. But, on occasion, a caricature becomes incarnate. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has admitted she has “no reason to disbelieve” any of Republican senate candidate Roy Moore’s accusers. Yet Ivey has announced she will vote for Moore anyway. “We need to have a Republican in the United States Senate,” she explained, “to vote on the things like Supreme Court justices.”
This is worth a pause. One of the accusers in this case says that in the late 1970s Moore, then a county prosecutor, offered to drive her home. Instead, she alleges, he parked behind the restaurant where she worked, touched her breasts, tried to pull off her shirt, grabbed her neck and pushed her head toward his crotch, leaving nasty bruises and a lifetime of trauma. The victim was 16 years old at the time. If Ivey truly believes this accusation, she is voting for someone who committed sexual assault on a teenage girl, in order to help secure one Senate vote on a prospective Supreme Court nominee.
This has the virtue, at least, of philosophic clarity. It is utilitarianism, unadorned. Ivey believes she is pursuing Jeremy Bentham’s imperative, achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It is a simple, easily stated moral rule.
There are many varieties of utilitarianism, but they share some weaknesses. While the principle is easy to state, it is not easy to apply. It always involves speculative judgments about the future. What if, as a senator, Moore becomes a rolling scandal of misogyny and intolerance? What if this deepens the image of the GOP as the party of prejudice and male dominance? And what if this costs Republicans control of the House of Representatives and a few other Senate seats? How would this affect Ivey’s utilitarian calculation?
This scenario is not unlikely. During his recent defeat in the Virginia governor’s race, Ed Gillespie — a comparatively good GOP candidate — lost women voters by 22 points. Is the three-ring spectacle of Roy Moore in the Senate going to improve Republican electoral performance with women?
But the main problem with utilitarian calculation in politics reaches deeper. By definition, it means that the rights of the few can be sacrificed to the interests of the many. It is a theory that has always been plagued by hypothetical questions: What if punishing a few innocent people would, on balance, have a good social result? What if keeping a few people in slavery clearly benefited the many? What if a politician who is currently abusing teenagers demonstrably served a greater public good? At what point does the “but he’ll vote right on Supreme Court nominees” argument end? Three rapes? Four murders? Wouldn’t utilitarian calculations still apply?
In the cases before us — if you believe the credible testimony of the accusers — the rights and dignity of women have already been violated. Ignoring or downplaying those violations in the pursuit of other social goals — conservative or liberal — is an additional form of victimization, this time by the broader society. By politicians such as Ivey. By voters willing to downplay the abuses on their own ideological team. All are making the statement that some lives, when weighed in the balance, really don’t matter.
None of this is to downplay the difficult task of applying appropriate punishments for differing degrees of guilt. But various traditions of ethics rooted in religion — as well as the Enlightenment theories that informed America’s founding — place a primary emphasis on the rights and dignity of individuals, protected against the shifting interests of the majority.
This is the firm moral ground upon which our debate on sexual harassment should be conducted. Political figures guilty of coercion, exploitation, dehumanization, cruelty and the abuse of power should not be trusted with power. Even on our own side.