walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: April 11, 2012
American Politics and the Structure of Betrayals

When the nice people at The American Interest invited me to start a blog on religion, they said that, if so moved from time to time, I could write on other topics. Mostly I have not been so moved. I am now. As I watch, with more or less appalled fascination, the unfolding circus of our presidential election, two recent incidents have caught my attention. (I may add that my observations about this are rigorously non-partisan—I could make them regardless of whether I favor President Obama or any of his Republican opponents;  I do have a preference, but it is quite irrelevant here.) The two incidents do not directly involve religion. They do involve morality. Arguably morality and religion have something to do with each other.

The first incident, widely reported, occurred at a recent international conference as Obama was conversing with outgoing Russian President Medvedev. They were talking about the differences between the United States and Russia on missile defense. Obama did not notice that the mic was open as he made the following remarks: He asked Medvedev to deliver a message to incoming President Putin—the latter was to give Obama some “space”, since he would have greater “flexibility” in this matter after the November election. Apart from the fact that Obama apparently expects to win the election, there is an interesting implication here (which of course Republicans have pounced upon): In order to win the election, Obama must deal with opposition in Congress and with an American public which is somewhere in the middle on most issues. After winning the election and not being able to run again, he would indeed be more flexible. Of course some people have wondered what else he would then be more flexible about—specifically, on other issues that most people are more concerned about than missile defense. But there is a less complimentary way of describing his situation: Although Obama has relied very much on his “base” (the left wing of the Democratic party) in his actions as president (just think of the partisan way in which he pushed the health bill through Congress), he has also given the appearance of being at heart a pragmatist inclined toward the middle (much to the disappointment of some in the “base”). Once re-elected, though, there would be no need to seek compromises with the Republican opposition or to curry favor with middle-of-the-road voters. In other words, Obama is really a man of the left at heart, but after the election, he will be able to betray those who voted for him as a man of the middle.

The second incident, also widely reported, occurred when Eric Fehrnstrom, a key advisor to Mitt Romney, made an ill-advised reference to a children’s toy called “Etch-a-Sketch” in speaking about the notion that Romney has gone too far to the right in trying to appease his “base”, namely the right wing of the Republican party. (I have never seen this toy. I don’t know anyone who has. But I take it that you can write something on it and then erase it.)  Once nominated, he would be freed from this burden and able, indeed compelled, to move toward the middle. This is how Fehrnstrom described the post-nomination situation: “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again”. A more kindly interpretation of this less than grammatical utterance would be that Romney is a man of the middle at heart and, until nominated, must make all these conservative noises. But after the nomination and going into the general election, he will be able to betray those who voted for him as a man of the right.

My intention here is not to cast moral aspersions on either Obama or Romney. I don’t know what either man truly believes. But both Obama and Romney’s advisor were quite simply describing the reality of American politics. Betrayal is not (or not only) a reprehensible choice by a politician. There really is no politically realistic choice. Betrayal is built into the very structure of the political reality. In order to be nominated and elected, a candidate for office, sooner or later, must betray somebody. By definition, he or she can only betray his or her friends. By definition, one cannot betray those who are not friends. (I have written “he or she” and “his or her”, not to conform to feminist syntax, but to emphasize that gender makes no difference here.)

I am not sure whether this structure of betrayals exists in other democracies. The American primary system guarantees it. A candidate must rely on a “base” to be nominated. These are the people who write cheques, who come to rallies, who canvass and make phone calls. Oscar Wilde once remarked, “The trouble with socialism is that it takes away all your free evenings”; the same can be said about all political activists. Most people have other things to occupy their evenings—family, friends, hobbies, vices. Given the primary system, the activists must be kept happy until the nomination has been achieved; they are rather less important as the general election looms. Then all these other people, the ones who don’t normally fill their evenings with politics, must be appealed to. Like most Americans, they are “moderates”, in the middle on most issues. What is more, it is very difficult to govern without support from the middle. This is so despite the much lamented “polarization”. Most Americans are not particularly polarized, not even on the hot button issues of the so-called “culture war”. The activists are polarized. Inevitably, they drive the political process. I am not a historian of American politics; I don’t know to what extent the situation today is uniquely polarized. Even stipulating that it is, the structure described here antedates it.

Are there remedies? Barring a serious national crisis, there is the chance that a rising disgust with uncompromising partisanship will mobilize “moderates”, even including activists, to push both parties toward the middle. Pragmatic party leaders may reassert control over unruly elements (the good old smoke-filled back rooms might be happily resurrected, even without the now banned smoke). Open primaries might help. But it seems likely that the structure of betrayals will not change in the near future. We may have to live with it for quite some time. There are worse things. And, when all is said and done, American democracy is still one of the best political arrangements around.

Religion comes back here as one tries to assess this state of affairs morally. I am not saying anything original if I assert that the long shadow of Puritan morality is still with us. It has been largely left behind when it comes to sexual morality (though many of our sexual liberationists exhibit a lot of Puritan zeal in their propaganda). Puritanism is alive and well in politics. America is still supposed to be a morally pure ”city on the hill”. Every campaign, domestic or foreign, becomes a crusade. The lesson taught by Reinhold Niebuhr about the inherent impurity of political reality has still not been truly learned, though he is often quoted. Those of us who mostly watch politics from the sidelines should not expect too much of our politicians. Those who are active politicians (assuming that they have moral concerns at all) must, I think, decide which betrayals are an acceptable price to pay for whatever good purposes they want to achieve. They might also ponder the statement by Machiavelli that a ruler must be prepared to risk the salvation of his soul for the good of the city.

show comments
  • Fred

    Perhaps Fehrnstrom should have used the word ‘palimpsest’ to make things easier for scholars? But then, of course, few of the journalists he was talking to would have understood him.

    I do wonder why you felt it necessary to make that little parenthesis. Did you wish to convey that you are too intelligent and serious a person to have any truck with children’s toys? It certainly reads as a form of condescension out of place in an article about religion and morality.

  • John Barker

    Perhaps we middling folk should get off the couch and get busy taking back the country. Publications like AI appeal to those who want to read serious thinking about events, and eschew partisan cheer leading. Commenting on blog posts may be the beginning of intelligent activism. I am confident that these pages are read by the powerful or at least by their associates.

  • Anthony

    If only they (PUBPOLS) were willing to risk the salvation of their souls for the good of the country, then American politics and structure of betrayal would be at least more tolerable – perhaps both Machiavelli and Neibuhr ought to be re-read.

  • Dave

    My goodness, such a revelation! Politicians “adjust” their message to suit the time and their audience.

  • John Mainhart

    Apparently the last concern of our leaders is to tell the truth. Sad

  • Cunctator

    Good article — and very thought provoking. Thank you.

    I agree that betrayal is inherent in any liberal democratic political system. Yoiu just cannot please all the people all the time — but you have to try to do so. But if we acknowledge that there is an element of morally reprehensible conduct built into the system, there is a readily available control mechanism. The best remedy for deceitful political leaders is an electorate that is informed about the issues and willing to engage those leaders on the issues (even if engagement is limited for most to casting a vote).

  • thibaud

    It’s not “betrayal” – that’s too grand a term for this phenom – but hypocrisy, a lesser vice. Also a necessary one for any advanced society.

    As fundamental vices go, hypocrisy’s a pretty good one to have: certainly better than the grand and small larceny that characterizes the leadership of so many other nations.

    The only reason that the term “betrayal” even comes up is because of the ridiculous self-importance that each party’s zealots attach to their particular hobbyhorses.

  • Jim.

    Until I see Walter Russel Mead step forward with a full-throated endorsement of Mitt Romney for president, I will not believe that Centrism is anything other than a way for people who imagine themselves to be in the “middle” of our political spectrum to imagine themselves to be superior to those of us who are not afraid to advocate a not-quite-fashionable political stance.

  • Robert

    Oh Sir: I can understand why you may never have experienced the Etch a sketch. I don’t think your parenthetical statement was condescending at all. I feared at first you’d been deprived as a child but after a bit of research I understand you had much more important matters to attend to when these toys were popular. I have provided a link, had I the money I may have sent you one. I only hope that, before the last night falls, some close friend or admirer of yours will gift you with one. :)
    Thanks for your article!

  • Lorenz Gude

    I don’t think Mr Berger is being condescending about the Etch-a-Sketch. I think he just doesn’t know what one is. They are still available on Amazon and there are even Etch-a-Sketch apps for the iPhone. Your punishment Peter, should you choose to accept it, it to spend $7.75 on the “Pocket Etch-a-Sketch”.

    I would comment that the two incidents are not well matched. One is an embarrassing sin of commission by the candidate himself, the other is an overly candid admission by a staff member, not really rising to the level of embarrassment. I have to agree with Thibaud that both are commonplace political hypocrisies. Still, I found the article thought provoking and worthwhile.

  • Brendan Doran

    @ WRM,

    Yes you do know what an etch o’ sketch is if you grew up in America at all. Perhaps you simply forgot. Do google.

  • Brendan Doran

    The problem is both parties and the Civil Service itself are hopelessly corrupt.

  • CBDenver

    This article is so wrong-headed it is hard to say where to begin in rebutting it. How about this statement for starters “I don’t know what either man truly believes”. Well then, that really is a problem, isn’t it? A politician doesn’t really have to conceal his true beliefs in order to appeal to the electorate — unless his true beliefs are so far outside the mainstream that it renders him unelectable.

    Those dreaded party activists reprenting the “base” are not as rigid as Berger seems to believe. The majority of the base realize that they will not agree 100% with a candidate on specific positions; they are just looking for a candidate who has a similar governing philosophy. People can deal with differences of opinion on specific policy decision. There is no reason for a politician to conceal his basic beliefs. So the idea that “Betrayal is built into the very structure of the political reality” is nonsense.

    I think the most disturbing part about Berger’s views are in the last paragraph where he talks about “the lessons taught by Neibuhr”. The idea that politicians must “decide which betrayals are an acceptable price to pay for whatever good purposes they want to achieve” is nonsense. People aren’t babies who don’t understand that life involves hard choices. Telling the electorate those truths is not electoral suicide as Berger seems to believe. It appears to me that Berger believes that people can’t really govern themselves, they can’t understand the complexities of life, and thus the “philosopher king” politicians must do whatever they can to get elected so they can do they, in their Olympian widsom, deem best. I call BS on this.

  • FeFe

    That “city” of which Machiavelli spoke was mostly of common heritage or culture and like minded in their notions of fairness, but now our masterminds are dealing with Star Fleet Command boardrooms and share holders. Hardly a moral Enterprise.

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