Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

More Political Morality, Please!

Paul Brink


April 25, 2007

The voters in Pennsylvania have finally spoken; six weeks of spinning our wheels have finally come to an end. And what is the result of our long wait and the candidates’ expenditure of millions of dollars?

In terms of an actual decision in the Democratic race, it turns out that there is little new to report. Of all the outcomes we might have imagined from the Pennsylvania primary, this was the one most unlikely to change anything. Sen. Hillary Clinton earned the double-digit lead she needed to remain in the race, but only just barely. Meanwhile, Sen. Barack Obama is able to boast of having exceeded earlier expectations about how far he would fall short of Clinton’s vote total. And he continues to rest upon an almost comfortable lead in the delegate count. Thus, it appears that our spinning wheels will have to keep on spinning for a while, at least until May 6, when Indiana and North Carolina hold their primaries.

In the meantime, the discussion will continue as to whether the ongoing campaign is bad for the party. In fact, the past six weeks have not been particularly kind to either candidate. Patterns in the coalitions of support enjoyed by both Obama and Clinton—certainly in Pennsylvania, but also elsewhere—have brought to the surface troubling fault lines over gender and, especially, race. And of course each interchange between the two provides additional ammunition for the Republicans who are preparing for their attacks in the final battle ahead.

But whether or not this is good for the Democratic Party, the campaign need not be bad for democracy. Even in the political spin cycle that is American politics, elections offer opportunities for genuine political debate and dialogue that are otherwise all too rare. Sure, it’s messy, but what we do in democratic societies is to take this kind of frustrating, typically wearisome, often haphazard, and exasperatingly non-philosophical method of decision making and hold it up as a model for the world! From this perspective, it is simply too bad that the Republican side chose its candidate so early.

Of course, that’s not to say the campaigns will make the most of their opportunity. In particular, both the Clinton and the Obama campaigns should say a good deal more about their political morality. Over the past weeks, voters have been treated to plenty of reports about actions and judgments that are largely a matter of personal morality—Clinton “misspeaking” about her 1996 trip to Bosnia, Obama’s apparent condescension towards small-town America, and questions as to what Obama’s longtime association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright really means.

Such reports are not unimportant when they help voters make judgments about the character of their would-be leaders. But they provide too little guidance as to the particular type of morality appropriate to political leadership, governance, and statecraft. Especially during election campaigns, the temptation for voters is to see our task as that of judging the personal morality of our leaders. But such judgments pale in significance compared to the task of determining the candidates’ political morality. The latter requires that we address and evaluate programs and policy proposals, that we try to piece together how candidates understand their task of promoting justice in politics, that we get a sense of their political worldview. Such is the challenge faced by those of us who hold the office of citizen. No one said that citizenship is easy.

Obama, who remains the Democratic frontrunner, entered the race vowing to leave the democratic process in better shape than he found it. As we turn to the next stage in the race, Obama and Clinton still have time to show us if and how they plan to upgrade democracy. If measured by the high standards of justice, the candidates still have a long way to go to show us what a moral politics should look like.
— Paul Brink, Associate Professor of Political Studies
     Gordon College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”