Over the weekend, I visited my mother for lunch, and we got to talking about this. “How could people vote for someone like that?” asked my mother, her head shaking in disbelief, and her Israeli accent more pronounced than usual.
Mom makes a good point, of course. It’s probably best for Congress not to be populated by crooks and bullies, so what the heck is going on in Staten Island? But then I posed to her a counter-question. “What if you were voting in an election for U.S. Senate,” I asked, ” and you had to choose between a progressive Democrat with legal problems or a conservative Republican with spotless integrity?”
Mom, who is a solid Democrat, retreated to a half-hearted response about how it would depend on the circumstances and what was at stake. Suddenly things weren’t so clear.
It’s easy to condemn the situational ethics and double standards here, displayed both by my liberal mother and by the conservative voters of Staten Island. But, in fact, I come to praise Mom and the Grimm supporters, not to bury them.
Because their actions (real for Staten Island, hypothetical for Mom) are rational.
We all like to hold an idealized view of our institutions — part Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, part Schoolhouse Rock — that imagines Congress to be a place where representatives come together to reason and negotiate, where individual legislators can make a huge difference through force of intellect or ability, and where, therefore, the personal character of particular candidates mattered most. Maybe there was a time in American history when that was at least roughly accurate. This is not that time.
Unlike the polyglot Democrats and Republicans of yore, our political parties today resemble their ideologically-pure European counterparts. We have a parliamentary democracy, minus the institutional trappings. And whichever party wins a majority gets to run the show.
So if your chief concern as a voter is (and it should be) what government actually does — who it helps and who it hurts, which causes it advances and which it impedes, which values it upholds and which it plows over — then the virtues and vices of individual legislators don’t matter very much. What matters more is the team they join and empower.
That’s not to say that ethics and character are irrelevant. Obviously, it is a lot better to have a Congress of honest, hard-working geniuses than of corrupt, lazy dolts, and when it comes to nominating candidates, party leaders and primary voters have a big responsibility to choose well.
But whether Michael Grimm is a crook counts for a lot less than whether the House of Representatives will preserve or repeal Obamacare. Whether Mom’s hypothetical candidate is an admirable human being counts for a lot less than whether the Senate will approve or reject limits on greenhouse gases. You can insert your own example of vital public policy . . . the point is that the character of the government as a whole, as measured by its actions, trumps the character of some of its bit players.
A few caveats: (1) it makes more sense to consider the competence and integrity of a candidate for executive office, who directs and defines an entire branch; (2) this argument is more relevant at the federal and state level, and less to county or local office, where the issues tend to be non-ideological, and the partisan divisions weaker; and (3) there are limits — some conduct is so beyond the pale that accepting it in our leaders degrades the entire political process.
Those caveats aside, holding your nose and voting for a flawed candidate who shares your views is usually the responsible — and even the moral — thing to do. It sure feels lousy, though.