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Virtuous Reality

The politics of character in a post-liberal age

The aim of every political Constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.

—James Madison, Federalist No. 57 (1788)


Check out sex tape.

—Donald Trump on Twitter (September 30, 2016)

American politics is now largely devoid of the language of virtue. The word occasionally surfaces in the bloviating of para-intellectuals such as David Brooks (New York Times gasbag and author of The Road to Character) and William Bennett (inveterate gambler and compiler of The Book of Virtues), but this hardly serves to recommend it.

Yet this concept, which had been integral to the founding of the American republic, is arguably more necessary for a sane politics than ever. It was clear, in the midst of the recent demoralizing presidential election campaign, that many Americans were speechless with exasperation, trying to articulate complaints for which the language of virtue and a politics of virtue, should we recover it, would be indispensable. Widespread concern over the “temperament” and “trustworthiness” of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton suggested as much, as did the unprecedented unlikability ratings that each candidate ran up with voters. Though it was rarely put this way, we doubted their virtue.

Writing for Commonweal in September, theologian Cathleen Kaveny asserted that in every election, issues take a back seat to concerns about “the moral character and political temperament of the candidates themselves.” Yes, virtue can come across as a fussy, schoolmarmish quality in a leader, Kaveny acknowledged, but she insisted that the quest for public virtue was anything but “wimpy” because “there are strong virtues appropriate for the unapologetically powerful men and women who hold public office.” Since virtue inheres in the character and comportment of individuals rather than the formulaic mantras of party fealty, it has the potential to transcend the ideological bifurcations stoked by the political-managerial class. A renewed politics of virtue, Kaveny suggested, will permit us to “set aside the culture wars in order to reflect together on the qualities of temperament and character that we should demand of our political leaders.”

Lest this sound like mere scholarly speculation and wishful thinking, note the prominence of what we might call the virtue agenda in the New York Times endorsement of Clinton and its companion rejection of Trump. Eschewing their usual focus on the candidates’ stands on controversial issues, the paper’s editors zeroed in on their characters—their virtues and vices. The Times praised Clinton for “her intellect, toughness, and courage,” also noting her “tenacity” and “grit” and her attentiveness to justice for the less fortunate. While admitting doubts about some of her actions—the Iraq war, the bombing of Libya, her earlier opposition to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants—the editors portrayed her as a leader of generally sound and realistic judgment.

A revived politics of virtue must go much deeper than programmatic visions of elite-administered moral improvement.

They assailed Trump, on the other hand, for adopting positions that “were matters of dangerous impulse and cynical pandering rather than thoughtful politics.” Trump was “a man far more consumed with himself than with the nation’s well-being.” His campaign, the editors charged, was marked by “bursts of false and outrageous allegations, personal insults, xenophobic nationalism, unapologetic sexism and positions that shift according to his audience and his whims.” They pleaded with those drawn to Trump’s outsized “personality” to reflect on his contempt for anyone who doubted him and on his thoroughgoing “mendacity.” They concluded with what may well be the signature question of our contemporary politics of virtue: “Our presidents are role models for generations of our children. Is this the example we want for them?”

The Tragedy of the Common

It’s easy, of course, to dismiss the notion of politics as a model for character building—particularly when it takes the form of liberal initiatives to endow the national state with parental-style nurturing mandates such as Hillary Clinton outlined in her child-centered political manifesto It Takes a Village. A revived politics of virtue must go much deeper than such programmatic visions of elite-administered moral improvement. We must unearth what the neglected original theorists of civic virtue in the Western tradition had in mind when they articulated the notion that politics was more than an instrumental scheme to distribute power and resources—that public life could be a qualitative enhancement of our otherwise cloistered and isolated ethical deliberations—a vision of citizenship as a true moral calling. Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address, invoked the healing graces of republican comity in the aftermath of his own notoriously vicious and personal campaign for the presidency: “Let us restore,” he pleaded with the fractured American citizenry, “that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life are but dreary things.” Contemporary political philosopher Michael Sandel voices a similar idea: “When politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.”

If the term sounds antique, that is only right; virtue’s lineage extends back to the ancient Greeks. Plato and Aristotle are at the headwaters of virtue ethics in Western philosophy. Plato distinguished four cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, and courage. Aristotle expanded the list to include liberality, magnanimity, truthfulness, friendliness, and modesty, and also introduced the notion that the virtues marked a “golden mean” between two opposed vices of excess and deficiency. Courage, for example, struck a mean between rashness and cowardice. The ancients regarded justice as the most important virtue because it was an essential element of all the others. Prudence, or practical judgment, was also of particular importance, because it was indispensable to the concrete exercise of all the virtues—one had to size up a situation correctly in order to respond to it virtuously.

The Romans gave their litany of virtues a particularly masculine and martial cast (vir is Latin for “man”). Christians added the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Benjamin Franklin’s list of virtues in his Autobiography—temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility—was crafted with an eye toward commercial success. Contemporary feminists have emphasized the supposedly feminine virtues of compassion, care, and nurturing. The shifting catalog of virtues provides a valuable window on changes in the human moral imagination.

Virtue ethics was the dominant mode of moral philosophy until the eighteenth century. Since then, ethics has been dominated by two other schools of thought: “deontological” ethics, derived from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and “consequentialist” ethics, of which the principal early proponents were utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The deontological tradition defines a moral act as one that follows from some general, invariant rule of conduct. Consequentialism defines a moral act as one that maximizes good effects. Both these philosophies are “act-centered,” while virtue ethics is “agent-centered.” Deontologists ask whether an action is right; consequentialists whether it is good. Practitioners of virtue ethics ask what sort of person would act in this fashion.

The Vicious Cycle

Returning to the unedifying spectacle of the 2016 presidential contest, we might consider the salience of two political virtues: honesty and practical wisdom. Trump repeatedly characterized Clinton as “lying Hillary” and “crooked Hillary,” referring especially to her misuse of email while Secretary of State. Trump, on the other hand, was regularly shown by fact-checkers to be advancing demonstrable falsehoods and continuing to disseminate them even after they were shown to be plainly false.

Clinton’s claim to practical wisdom drew heated criticism from her main primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, who questioned her judgment on the Iraq war and her acceptance of enormous fees for lecturing Wall Street bankers. Republican critics piled on with other accusations of failed judgment, such as Clinton’s alleged role in downplaying terrorist motivations in the attack on American officials in Benghazi, the outcome of U.S.-backed bombing campaigns in Libya, and the cozy relationship between her State Department and the Clinton Foundation. Doubts about Trump’s capacity for prudent judgment were widespread after the presidential debates, when he vowed to jail Clinton on ill-specified criminal charges if he were elected. Clinton questioned whether Trump was the sort of person one should entrust with the capacity to launch a nuclear war, given his often expressed readiness to put America’s nuclear arsenal in play.

Millions of Americans supported Nixon, until his horrors were exposed. Millions of Americans supported Trump, even with his horrors in full view.

Whatever one’s relative estimation of their virtues, it seems clear, by any rational calculus, that Clinton’s vices paled before Trump’s. Not only was he less honest and less wise than she, but he also sported many Aristotelian vices of excess: rashness, self-indulgence, vanity, boastfulness, and buffoonery. His open contempt for women, Muslims, and Mexicans; his ad hominem and ad feminam attacks on political opponents; and his scurrilous treatment of media critics showed him to be woefully deficient in justice, moderation, and prudence—three for four.

Trump’s failings were wholesale; Clinton’s, while bad enough, were less egregious. Clinton’s principal blind spot was her reluctance to permit full public scrutiny of her activities. Her preference for policymaking behind closed doors was chronic—and when challenged, she responded with indignation, evasions, sophism, weak apologies, and an occasional lie. Yet while Clinton sometimes prevaricated to protect herself and her less-than-virtuous husband, Trump was simply an uninhibited liar. Clinton acted unwisely on occasion; Trump was continually, almost constitutionally unwise. Clinton’s sins were relatively venial; Trump’s were mortal. Mark Singer was hardly exaggerating in his 1997 New Yorker profile of Trump when he observed that the mogul “had aspired to and achieved the ultimate luxury, an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”

The news media, obsessed with “balance,” found this contrast in virtue difficult to handle. Journalists insisted on giving each candidate “equal time,” devoting far more pages or minutes to each of Clinton’s few vices than to each of Trump’s many. Pursuing a de facto “flood the zone” strategy never before encountered on this scale in our political life, Trump dodged deep inquiry into any particular moral failure by piling yet another one on top of it before the full implications of the former could settle in. As Jacob Weisberg observed, reporters accustomed to comparing imperfect apples and oranges were flummoxed when confronted with the challenge of comparing a blemished apple to “rancid meat.”

Character Tests

Virtue ethics is, in the parlance of our own time, both global and local. It attempts not only to draw conclusions about the virtuous character necessary for human flourishing in the abstract (eudaimonia) but also to describe the relation of individual character to the public good. Virtue and virtue ethics, so central to the political life of the Roman republic (509–27 BCE), became a concern, even an obsession, of subsequent republican political theory. The key value in this theory is liberty, defined as freedom from the exercise of arbitrary or uncontrolled power by one person over another. Civic virtue is a disposition of citizens to defend the public good by securing liberty from domination. The gravest threat to civic virtue is “corruption”—the furthering of personal or factional interests at the expense of the public good. Civic virtue, then, is an instrumental virtue, to be cultivated for the role it plays in protecting liberty.

Following the collapse of the Roman republic, and after centuries of eclipse, republican theory gained currency in the urban republics of the Italian Renaissance, in the Commonwealth (1649–1660) that followed the mid-seventeenth-century English Civil War, and most fully, in the American and French revolutions. The central architect of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, was a thoroughgoing republican thinker, steeped in Cicero and Polybius, Florentine Renaissance philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, and early-modern English republicans John Milton, James Harrington, and Algernon Sidney.

In the nineteenth century, republicanism was supplanted in preeminence by its distant cousin, liberalism, a philosophy centered less on civic virtue and citizenship than on individual rights and the private realms of production and consumption. Nonetheless, republican themes cross-pollinated with liberal ones, allowing the ideal of civic virtue to endure with attenuated but sometimes forceful effect. In the twentieth century, republicanism dimmed even further, though in the last few decades, a few “neo-republican” academic scribblers have been trying to exhume and reinvigorate the tradition. As the past election cycle made clear, the time is ripe.

Access and Excess

What might a revived politics of virtue look like? Civic-republican politics aims to secure a civil society and a polity without structures of domination. It uses state power to challenge domination in civil society, but at the same time seeks to ensure that the state does not itself become an instrument of domination. Civic republicans seek to protect liberty by means of various forms of “institutional design”—above all, the rule of law, particularly constitutional law and the cultivation of civic virtue.

The separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution is a republican effort to constrain state power. Laws against domestic abuse (a relatively recent innovation), deceptive lending, and coercion of employees serve a similar purpose in civil society. The republican commitment to democratic politics is grounded in the firm belief that all citizens should have access to political institutions through which they can contest threats to their liberty. The audacity of the American republican experiment lies in its progressive extension of the full rights of citizenship necessary for such self-protection to more and more of those who live within its borders. (The Trump movement seeks to counter this expansion by stirring up moral panics steeped in racial and religious anxiety.) The franchise is, of course, among the most important of citizens’ rights, and regular elections among the most significant of political institutions. But few if any republicans imagine that voting and elections are a sufficient safeguard of liberty. Some even argue that in order to protect their liberty effectively, citizens must also enjoy “social rights” like health care and education.

But just as important as protecting rights and institutions is creating a polity that promotes and inculcates civic virtue, not only among political leaders but among ordinary citizens in daily life as well. Civic republicans measure the health of a polity by how well its leading institutions prevent the exercise of arbitrary, uncontrolled power over its citizens—and also by how firmly and vigilantly citizens restrain the excesses of the state. By these measures, the contemporary American republic is in dire straits.

What Fresh Hell Is This?

How bad is our civic plight? Let’s start with a clear case of institutional corruption.No recent president possessed less civic virtue or posed a greater threat to republican government than Richard Nixon (though the competition is closer than one would like). I recently had occasion to reread one of the most penetrating interpretations of the Watergate scandal, an essay by John Schaar and Francis Carney, “The Circles of Watergate Hell” (1974). Schaar was a notable neo-republican political theorist, and much of the essay examined Watergate from this perspective. The scandal, it argued, “brought us face to face with a constitutional and political monster of our own making: a derangement of powers among the branches of government; and a deadly imbalance between the powers of the government on the one side and the resources of the citizenry on the other.”

Trump is not Nixon, but both conspicuously lack civic virtue. Again and again over the course of his career, Nixon (like Trump) displayed “that same obsessive interest in himself, that same inability to distinguish between the nation’s needs and his own,” Schaar and Carney observed. “The public life of the nation has no autonomous meaning for him, no claims and needs of its own. It is but a stage for his performance.” Nixon’s “inner voices of egotism and self-interest” made him “deaf to the voice of common decency, contemptuous of the responsibilities of civic life and office.” These were the marks of deep-seated corruption and “precisely the defining qualities of the tyrannical soul.” Sound familiar?

But at least Nixon tried to disguise his shortcomings: “Nixon knows he is right, but he also knows he is wrong,” Schaar and Carney wrote. There was a main stage and backstage to his performance: “He is foul-mouthed in private, prissily clean-spoken in public. . . . He connives and dissimulates outrageously behind the scenes, but is excessively sincere and sanctimonious in public.” Not so Trump. We needed no secret tapes to discern the dangers to constitutional government he posed; he openly announced them at public rallies. His Caesarism was overt and unapologetic. He did resort on occasion to Nixonian “dog whistles,” like “law and order,” and even invented a few of his own. His assaults on Clinton’s “stamina” were not hard to discern as a reference to her lack of a certain appendage between her thighs. (By “stamina,” those of a horticultural bent might say, he meant “stamena.”) But more often than not, Trump simply cut loose with undisguised racism and misogyny: “Grab them by the pussy.”

Millions of Americans supported Nixon, until his horrors were exposed. Millions of Americans supported Trump, even with his horrors in full view. If Watergate was, in part, “a tale of a citizenry debased and disheartened,” Trump’s campaign has revealed a citizenry that seems willfully—indeed, proudly—self-debauched. If, for civic republicans, “the rock on which the polity is built is a virtuous, that is, public-spirited, citizenry—a citizenry that cares for public liberty”—then that rock is crumbling.

Is our condition irreparable? It could well be. Our republic has had an exceptionally long run, and in view of the dispiritingly brief and corruption-prone saga of republican governance in the West, republicans have never been an especially sanguine lot. Many have, indeed, endorsed a cyclical theory of history in which republics inevitably fall as liberty falters under the assault of corrupting power. Certainly, turning to leaders such as Clinton will not suffice. Her candid admission that “when it comes to public service, I’m better at the service part than the public part” was more troubling than she realized. As Kaveny says: “Effective political leaders don’t withdraw into their own circle of expertise in order to constitute a guardian class charged both with protecting and deceiving common people. They inspire, enable, and energize their fellow citizens to make their own contributions to the common good.”

The Revolt of the Elites

Some commentators blame the citizenry for their imperfect virtue and would freeze them even further out of public life, calling for more insulated ruling elites. Andrew Sullivan, drawing on Plato, the most venerable of democracy’s enemies, asserts without a shred of convincing evidence that “the barriers to the popular will, especially when it comes to choosing our president, are now almost nonexistent.” Elites, he says, channeling Plato’s call for a “guardian” class, must “provide the critical ingredient to save democracy from itself.” Lumping Bernie Sanders with Trump and Ted Cruz as “political sociopaths,” Jonathan Rauch joins Sullivan in blaming the country’s political woes on “unmediated” democracy. “Our most pressing political problem today,” he concludes in a spasm of contrarianism, “is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.” Our best hope lies in inoculating our politics from “swarms of voters” by investing greater power in guardians of a better sort.

The only remedy for a crumbling republic is the revitalization of civic virtue. And this precludes despair or fatalism.

Neo-republicans can only regard such proposals as a recipe for the acceleration of corruption and elite domination. The only remedy for a crumbling republic is the revitalization of civic virtue. And this precludes despair or fatalism. The path forward is rather to launch bold experiments, invent new institutions, revive the atrophied ideal of democratic control of public policy, and so cultivate the badly damaged traditions and practices of civic virtue.

In this daunting enterprise of civic-republican reclamation, public education is crucial. As one of our finest American historians, Alan Taylor, recently remarked, the nation’s republican founders placed a weighty bet on the nation’s schools. They were well aware that civic virtue is not inborn. By transforming our public schools into engines for the production of “human capital,” we have effaced the political purposes for which they were established. Taylor concludes: “We need to revive the founders’ definition of education as a public good and an essential pillar of free government. We should also recover their concept of virtue, classically defined, as a core public value worth teaching. That, in turn, would enable more voters to detect demagogues seeing power through bluster and bombast.”

The Founders, fearful of tyrannical majorities, provided precious little institutional space for popular control of public policy. The result is what some have termed a “democratic deficit” in our polity. Research by a number of political scientists, including Larry Bartels, Martin Gilens, and Benjamin Page, has shown that the vast majority of Americans have virtually no impact on the making of public policy in this country. “The central point that emerges from our research,” Gilens and Page reported in 2014, “is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Ordinary citizens find their preferences realized in policy only when they coincide with those of wealthy Americans and corporate lobbyists. And not surprisingly, those interests completely fail to coincide on virtually every issue in which the public possesses its own urgent material interest, including national health care, Social Security, aid to the unemployed, financial regulation, progressive taxation (and tax enforcement), affordable housing, student-loan debt, and education spending. “In the United States,” Gilens and Page conclude, “the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

For those worried about virtue in contemporary American politics, it’s difficult to disagree with Bernie Sanders’s conclusion that, in order to realize any meaningful change, the nation will require a “political revolution.” Such a revolution would have to imaginatively harness what remains of the country’s democratic impulses and practices. There will need to be dramatic innovations in “institutional design”—perhaps even, as the eminent political scientist Robert Dahl suggested in 1985, the creation of a cluster of new representative bodies, each one a “minipopulus” of a thousand ordinary citizens chosen at random and for a limited period of paid service, who would gather for a year of informed deliberation on a major issue. The considered views of each such minipopulus would provide a channel of public opinion to elected officials far superior to polls of ill-informed, uninterested respondents. Elected officials would be free to ignore the policy choices of the minipopuli, but at their electoral peril.

These and other institutions suggested by imaginative neo-republicans would allow virtuous citizens to serve more directly than they now do as the guardians of their own liberty. Dahl admitted that his proposal was bound to seem “semi-utopian,” but this objection, he responded, reflected not its impracticality but the threat that robust democracy poses to prevailing patterns of domination. A richer democracy, he said, was not “beyond our reach,” but it could well be “beyond our vision.” If nothing else, the movement that Donald Trump has summoned into being has underscored the desperate need to recalibrate our democratic—and civic republican—vision.