Monday, April 18, 2016

If I Were a Senator: Honesty in Politics

I have a long standing fantasy of being a legislator.

Since I was quite young, I have wanted to do good in the world - to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been.

This little blog that I run in my own dark corner of the internet hardly suffices to fulfill that particular desire. Not when I compare it to something that I could have been doing - such as serving as a legislator, where I would have the chance to vote on things with the potential to do real good to real people.

I do not have the temperament to be a politician.

However, I do have the temperament to fantasize about being a politician. A politician who wants to do good.

In my fantasies, I often ask myself how I would handle certain controversial issues. There are a lot of issues in the world where I have held that it is reasonable to believe that my personal opinion on a matter, if I were to use that to decide my vote, would get me removed from office. This would mean giving up the opportunity to continue to do the good that I did elsewhere.

What should I do in these types of situations?

To begin with: To imagine myself to be an atheist legislator is already to imagine that I am a liar.

The majority of Americans automatically reject the idea of an atheist in public office. Consequently, no open atheist sits as a legislator in the United States. Certainly there are atheist legislators. However, all of them are liars to one degree or another. They are at best being deceptive regarding their attitudes towards religion and the existence of a god. If I were to be an atheist legislator, then I must imagine that I am being similarly deceptive.

This fact strongly informs my opinion regarding honesty in politics.

However, I have also had a concern with more specific issues.

For years, one of those cases was the issue of gay marriage. I have viewed marriage as something of a contract - as an important social contract which the government has reason to support and strengthen. There is no moral case to be made against a man entering into a contract with another man or a woman entering into a contract with another woman. In this sense, "If we let men marry men then we would also have to allow them to marry children or animals" was utter nonsense. Children and animals cannot enter into valid contracts of this type. Men can.

Anyway, for quite a number of years it was the case that to express this opinion meant being excluded form public office. "I could either state that my opinion is that I see nothing wrong with gay marriage, or I could deny that this is the case and serve in the legislature where I can do a great deal of good."

My choice over the years has been the former. But not because I consider it a morally superior option. In fact, I consider the latter to be the morally superior option but judge that I simply lack the traits of character that would allow me to pursue that option.

Without changing anything about my character other than eliminating the unease I would have at going up to total strangers and asking for their vote and their contributions, I would choose to be the legislator who deceives others about my beliefs when they are unpopular, and who would sometimes vote against my own moral opinion.

Admittedly, in those fantasies of being a legislator, I often imagine that I can seek some middle ground. I imagine myself campaigning on the platform, "Look, as your representative in the legislature I see it as my job to represent you. I am not there to represent myself. I see the situation as being much like that of being an agent to a Hollywood movie star. I can give you my recommendations as to what you should do but, ultimately, I work for you and my job is to execute your will."

Then, on matters of homosexuality, I would declare that I see nothing wrong with homosexual marriage - that I find it wrong to prevent competent adults from entering into those agreements if they wish. However, "I work for you and it is my job to execute your will" would mean that I would vote against homosexual marriage until such time as the people I represent tell me that it is their will to allow me to vote in favor.

But that is my fantasy world. In the real world, where voting in favor of homosexual marriage was the political equivalent of signing a letter of resignation, in the same way that I had no intention of signing a letter of resignation, I would likely have voted against homosexual marriage.

Another case in which I spent a lot of time considering the difference between my own moral opinion and the public will had to do with the invasion of Iraq.

I was against the invasion of Iraq. My main argument had to do with the principles of the trial by jury. Effectively, Saddam Hussein was being convicted of a crime (violating UN sanctions with respect to stockpiling weapons of mass destruction), and, as a result, the American government was calling for violent action against him.

The proper attitude to take in this situation, I argued, was to present the evidence to an impartial jury and to abide by its verdict.

To the best of my ability, the Bush Administration had presented its case to our political allies - most notably, the members of NATO, and they returned a near unanimous verdict of "Not Guilty". This meant that, if the Bush Administration were to go ahead with the invasion (as it did) it would be comparable to a police officer - after a not-guilty verdict in a trial - pulling out a gun and killing the accused out of the conviction that he was, in fact, guilty. That would be murder.

However, at the time, the public sentiment strongly favored invasion.

The public sentiment was not consistent across the whole country. There were parts of the country where a Senator could have voted against the invasion without risk of being thrown out of office. However, there were other parts of the country where voting against invasion was the political equivalent of signing a letter of resignation.

What if I were to sign that letter of resignation or - what amounts to the same thing - voted against the invasion? Well, then I would either be giving my seat over to somebody who actually and honestly favored the invasion and was blind to the moral objections against it, or I would be giving my seat over to somebody who also objected to the invasion but was willing to sacrifice her principles to stay in office. Neither option would make the global situation better - and one option would make the global situation worse.

It is crucial to remember that this vote was taken before we knew that Saddam Hussein actually had no weapons of mass destruction. When I was mulling over in my mind, "How would I vote if I was a Senator," I did so while believing it was extremely likely that somebody like Saddam Hussein would try to get away with hiding weapons of mass destruction somewhere. Consequently, a vote against the invasion, after the invasion had found such a stockpile, would be interpreted as a failure to remove a significant threat. This is certainly something the Bush Administration itself was counting on.

In this sense, President Obama was extremely lucky. If weapons of mass destruction had been found, he never would have become President, and might not have long remained a Senator.

Weighing all of these factors - I cannot actually tell how I would have voted with respect to the invasion of Iraq, even given my moral opposition to the invasion. However, I can well understand how a politician who was not ready to sign a letter of resignation and leave public life would have been tempted to vote for it.

I did say at the start of this blog that I do not have the temperament to be a politician. A part of that is because I have such a strong aversion to lying. But, because I have that aversion, I am not going to hold public office. Of those who do hold public office, I would much rather that office be held by somebody more like me but a willingness to lie about unpopular beliefs than a candidate who honestly asserts, advocates, and promotes harmful policies.

No comments: