Cleanliness is next to Godliness in political life

Washington is all a-twitter over Mark Foley, the disgraced gay alcoholic Republican who had to resign over “overly friendly” e-mails to congressional pages. And while I just finished complaining about too much gossip in place of news coverage, there’s a big issue here worth pondering. It’s what The Wall Street Journal online’s James Taranto has called “political hygiene”: how well parties avoid things that they would clearly see were despicable if their adversaries did them. Democrats in the United States can barely conceal their glee over this particular scandal and aren’t trying very hard, because it hits the Republicans right in the hypocritical breadbasket. Not because they had a renegade in their caucus, which could happen to anyone. What has the Democrats smelling gains in the November elections is the accusation that some senior congressional Republicans knew about the e-mails, and the sender’s unsavoury reputation among pages, but covered it up for partisan purposes, even letting him remain co-chair of a congressional caucus on children’s issues. Family values indeed.

Now a real partisan might say that the Democrats would cry cover-up regardless of the facts. And they might. Cries of “resign” are lamentably common in politics, there as elsewhere. But it doesn’t mean a lot of politicians shouldn’t in fact resign. And here there is pretty strong evidence that some Republicans knew Mr. Foley was chronically up to no good, and turned a blind eye or even winked. Certainly, and this is my key point, there is enough evidence that if it were the Democrats I would call it a scandal. So how can I do otherwise when it’s the Republicans?

I’m not actually a strong Republican partisan. I evaluate parties and policies by their contribution to conservatism, not the other way around, and the current GOP offers little in this regard. Of course their opponents might be worse, especially on national security. And I will excuse more bad things about a party if it also offers more good ones; you can’t disaggregate in politics, so you must make prudential judgments. (On the other hand, I resent being told I have to support a party just because its opponents are way worse, not least because if I sell myself that cheaply once, it invites further equally insulting offers.) But you first have to be clear on what constitutes a bad thing.

The trick is to jettison “we’re us and they’re them” thinking and adopt my very simple test for political hygiene. In any given instance, step back and ask yourself: “How would I react to this behaviour, or policy, if it were the other guys doing it?”

This recommendation shouldn’t even be controversial. Do unto others, be honest, don’t cheat etc. are traditional virtues. But we don’t live in traditional times. After decades of progressives telling us everything ostensibly noble and principled is just a sinister mask for racist, patriarchal corporate self-interest, the best we can do is John Rawls’s imaginary “veil of ignorance,” where we design laws and institutions as if we didn’t know our own position in society, on the theory that the only thing that could possibly prevent us from dealing off the bottom of the deck is not knowing which chair is ours.

I don’t really like it. Pretending you’re fair-minded strikes me as a poor substitute for the real thing. But by this point, if it’s all you’ve got I’ll take it. That most people regard all politicians as short-sighted, self-serving weasels is unfair. Some politicians are far-sighted. No, wait. I mean public-spirited. But even the better ones shouldn’t whine about the low repute in which politics is now held, because they too practice poor political hygiene. They clam up when their party makes patronage appointments; keep silent about fuzzy accounting in their platform; lose an election and savage their foes for policies they initiated or inaction on files they too neglected.

What about the federal NDP denying renomination to an MP who bucked the party on gay marriage? To be sure, most NDPers favour gay marriage. But if the Tories booted an MP for supporting it, wouldn’t the NDP accuse Stephen Harper of dictatorial control over his party? You can’t have it both ways. Actually you can, if you also praise strong party discipline in a parliamentary system and the other guys don’t. There would be nothing inconsistent or shabby in that. But it’s not where we are and you know it.

Especially given the level of popular disenchantment with politics, I find myself increasingly inclined to insist that first of all a party not disgust me. Which shouldn’t be that hard. But it does require elementary political hygiene.

For instance, you know perfectly well what you’d say if the other party was hitting on the pages. So don’t expect my support if you’re doing it.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson