Moral Imperatives

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Yesterday, a spirited conversation broke out in my comments about whether it’s right for a politician to act against the moral will of his constituents.  If the people want something they consider moral, and the politician doesn’t vote for that, shouldn’t the politician step down?
My take remains the same: I elect a guy because I want him to be smarter than I am.  And after that, I gotta trust that he’s balancing morality against pragmatism.
My personal lesson on that was the first Iraq war, way back in 1991.
Now, I was not for either Iraq war – but once we invaded and trounced Saddam Hussein’s army in an almost embarrassing spectacle, there were a lot of people saying, “Roll into the capital!  Topple Saddam!  Finish the job!”  And Bush – the first and wiser Bush – rolled up to the gates, and then withdrew, leaving Saddam Hussein in power.
There were a lot of people upset about this.  I mean, shit, we had a dictator who’d gassed his own goddamned people!  How could we just walk away, leaving a bloodthirsty maniac in charge?  We’re literally on his doorstep!  And a lot of people were pissed off, because morally, the choice was clear: what kind of a man would choose to keep a tyrant propped on the throne?
As we all know, Bush the first was a one-term President.  A lot of that was his raising taxes, but some significant portion was his refusal to do the satisfying thing, and the moral thing, by refusing to pull the trigger on Iraq’s evil bits when he had the shot.
As we all also know, thanks to his dumber son, things weren’t nearly that simple.  Yes, we could – and did! – remove a tyrant.  But removing that cork meant all the sectarian tensions in the area were suddenly unleashed, creating a wave of bloody infighting that killed roughly 125,000 civilians.  Admittedly, we did a really bad job of actually preparing for that tension, but I think even if we’d planned and executed the transition well, we’d still have had tens of thousands of people dead.  And, of course, Iraq’s only now starting to recover.  And, of course, other dictators have had more breathing room because America has had to pour a lot of resources into Iraq and really can’t threaten war the way we used to.
Which is not to say there’s not a case to be made for toppling Saddam, who killed hundreds of thousands of people as well.  But too many people at the time saw getting rid of Saddam as “Oh my God, it’s so simple, why wouldn’t you?” They (and I!) saw it as a stupidly easy snap-call, like just calling in the exterminator, and watching Bush as he made the call to just pull up stakes and leave was highly frustrating.  But Bush, who paid attention to world politics in a way he rarely gets credit for, realized what a snakepit it would be trying to set up our own government there, and decided that it would kill a lot of people and not be particularly effective.
History seems to indicate that he had a point.
And my point is that a lot of voters – including you – get pissed because things seem so simple that they become black and white: “This is clearly the only responsible thing to do, and my God, how dare the guy I elected contradict my desires?  This isn’t just politics, it’s a clear moral imperative!”  And I believe, as with most things, that the world is full of ugly grays, our power is more limited than we’d ever want to believe, and more often than not one guy’s moral imperative is a stupid oversimplification that’s going to get us all into trouble.  The Tea Party is a very simple party with very simple needs, and things are very clear to them.  And actually, I find that’s what makes them as dangerous as they are: that inflexible set of demands backed by a moral outrage.
Me?  I’ll go to Obama again.  I wanted single-payer.  I was outraged when, because the benefits of single-payer were so ridiculously clear to me, that Obama didn’t fight for it.  And his refusal to go to the mat for it felt, at the time, very much like a betrayal of the principles that I elected him for.  But Obama had access to all sorts of polls I never saw, and knew what sorts of opposition he’d face in Congress and from the insurance companies and from the medical companies, and I’m willing to admit that while I think pushing for a single-payer system was the clear and righteous thing to do, the vastly-flawed Obamacare may have been the only thing that he could have actually gotten through as legislation.
In other words, Obama may have decided that my moral imperative was actually not doable, and decided to enact the best available solution, even if that solution is in many ways crappy and unsatisfying and flawed.  Kind of like walking away from Saddam.  And so I am suspicious when people tell me that the job of their elected officials should be a rubber stamp, because frankly I don’t think “reading whatever articles that seem interesting on Twitter” qualifies me to make decisions to run my home town, let alone the entire country.
I think elected officials, if they’re doing their job right, will be liars.  Because they’ll promise one thing from the campaign trail, and then discover new and ugly and very unsatisfying facts.  And all you can do is hope that your guy was the guy he said he was, and vote him out if you really don’t like him.
Which means that, like Bush, quite often measured wisdom and forethought will mean getting booted out.  Which is something to ponder.

1 Comment

  1. Jerry D'Antonio
    Oct 31, 2013

    America is not, and never has been, a democracy. We’re a republic. It even says so in the Pledge of Allegiance. In a republic the people vote for representative leaders and those leaders rule in their stead. There is no debate to be had. America’s elected leaders are morally obligated to make their own decisions. Period. regardless of the “will” of the people as expressed by polls. The system was intentionally designed this way by our founders because they understood that true democracy could not work on a national scale.
    Anyone who doesn’t understand this should retake high school civics.

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