Monday, October 22, 2012

How not to choose a president

Oct 20, 2012

By gary gutting

AS THE United States election campaign moves into its last weeks, I am reading ancient Greek literature and history with my class of first-year Notre Dame students. This reading has led me to question the way Americans evaluate their candidates. The Greeks see clearly things Americans do not.

They see, for example, that failure does not prove incompetence. Consider Oedipus. As classical scholars like Bernard Knox have noted, he is the model of the Athenian statesman described in Pericles' famous Funeral Oration. Nonetheless, Oedipus comes to a horrific end, blind and exiled. Why? Not because he is incompetent. He is remarkably smart, persistent and courageous. But he is a victim of fate.

For the tragedians, fate is tied to the gods, either their implacable will (Aeschylus in Agamemnon) or their knowledge of what must happen (Sophocles in Oedipus The King). The historians - Thucydides and, especially, Herodotus - are more inclined to speak of luck or chance. We are also more comfortable with luck than with fate, but too seldom invoke either to explain why things go wrong for politicians.

In particular, we often forget that what happens may have nothing to do with a leader's decisions. In the present election, much may be made, for example, of the November employment numbers.

A sharp rise in unemployment may well defeat President Barack Obama and a sharp decrease may carry him to victory. In fact, those numbers will warrant no conclusion about Mr Obama's handling of our economic problems. Employment figures fluctuate from month to month and no single report is a good indicator of the state of the economy.

Even the famous broader measure, "Are we better off than we were four years ago?", ignores the multitude of extrinsic factors that determine the economic cycle. As we gradually come out of the recession, the odds are that whoever wins this election will, at the end of his term, claim credit for a significantly improved economy.

We also tend to forget that even the best-considered and most well-executed decisions may fail for reasons beyond a leader's control. The Seal unit raid that killed Osama bin Laden may well be credited to Mr Obama's good judgment and careful planning. But this judgment and planning could just as well have led to failure.

Conversely, former president Jimmy Carter's failed hostage rescue could, with better luck, have been a success. He might then have gone on to win the 1980 election and, with an economic recovery at the end of his second term, now be judged a successful president (while Mr Ronald Reagan would be just another also-ran whose brief adulation we would file under "What were they thinking?").

The Greeks were also more comfortable than we are with the personal weaknesses of their leaders. In Homer, for example, Achilles rages and pouts, Hector runs away from battle - none of which affects their status as heroes. But, particularly in the last days of our presidential campaigns, any evidence of weakness can count decisively against a candidate.

So, for example, the two great "issues" during the last few weeks have been Mr Mitt Romney's remarks about "the 47 per cent" and Mr Obama's performance in the first debate. But neither event tells us anything significant about the qualifications of either man to be president.

Unless you already think Mr Romney's policies unfairly favour the rich, his embarrassing remarks will tell you only that he, like any other candidate, does not always make his points in the most politic way. Unless you already think Mr Obama is a weak leader, his alleged lapses in debate tell you only that, like any other candidate, he can have a bad night.

Given the immense amount of public exposure these two men have had, it is absurd to focus on isolated incidents to form an overall judgment of their character or ability.

Our skewed focus is largely because of a faulty analogy between politics and competitive sports. A player gets credit for a win even if his opponent was clearly superior and lost only from terrible luck. The outcomes of games sometimes do depend on one or two crucial lapses. In a society that regards training in sports as training for life, it is easy to start thinking of any competitive situation as a sporting event. Hiring an employee, choosing a spouse and electing a president all readily seem to fall under the sports model.

The sports analogy has especially undermined the current presidential debates. The second debate, in particular, gave Mr Obama and Mr Romney an opportunity to answer thoughtful, well-focused questions from ordinary citizens. But they mostly ignored the opportunity in favour of scoring points by putting one another down. Why do we think excelling in this sort of verbal roughhouse is a qualification for the presidency?

There is, in fact, a decisive difference between sports and politics. The rules of a game have no function except to determine a winner. As far as the rules go, it does not matter what the winner does after the game.

But the "rules" for real-life choices need to be good guides to what the winner will do after the choice is made. In an election, we need reasons for thinking that the winner will go on to be a good president. There is no reason to think that someone who has been successful just out of luck will continue to be successful; and there is every reason to think that anyone is likely to act wrongly sometimes in future.

That is why it is a mistake to identify competence with success or to see occasional lapses as disqualifying.
Looking for decisive lapses in the last few weeks makes elections entertaining and gives disengaged or lazy voters an easy way to make up their minds. But it has nothing to do with making an intelligent decision about who should be president.

The deeper mistake, however, is to believe that the competence and character of the candidates should ordinarily be major issues in a presidential election. Disqualifying incompetence and character defects are, under our present system, unlikely.

Anyone who has been able to win a national party's nomination is likely to have a reasonable level of competence for governing (or, at least, an ability to choose and listen to advisers who have such competence). And the degree of scrutiny candidates undergo would have likely exposed any serious character flaws. At any rate, if you think either Mr Romney or Mr Obama is simply unqualified, your evidence should have been apparent from their overall records well before the last few weeks of this campaign.

How, then, should we choose our president? Typically, I propose, by voting for the party rather than the person. All we can reasonably expect is that the country will probably move in the ideological direction of the winning candidate's party. This is especially true now, when even the President is so dependent on the political and financial support of the party's base.

Many voters, of course, have a fixed party allegiance. Others will judge that at least for the next four years we should tilt in a particular partisan direction. In any case, since there is no good way to predict who will turn out to be the "better man", that is mostly a matter of luck, the thing to do is vote for the party you think should be in power for the next four years.


The writer is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, Thinking The Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960, and writes regularly for The Stone, a New York Times website which features the writing of contemporary philosophers on various issues.

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