Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics

Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics

Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics

Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics

Synopsis

How should politicians act? When should they try to lead public opinion and when should they follow it? Should politicians see themselves as experts, whose opinions have greater authority than other people's, or as participants in a common dialogue with ordinary citizens? When do virtues like toleration and willingness to compromise deteriorate into moral weakness? In this innovative work, Andrew Sabl answers these questions by exploring what a democratic polity needs from its leaders. He concludes that there are systematic, principled reasons for the holders of divergent political offices or roles to act differently.Sabl argues that the morally committed civil rights activist, the elected representative pursuing legislative results, and the grassroots organizer determined to empower ordinary citizens all have crucial democratic functions. But they are different functions, calling for different practices and different qualities of political character. To make this case, he draws on political theory, moral philosophy, leadership studies, and biographical examples ranging from Everett Dirksen to Ella Baker, Frances Willard to Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr. to Joe McCarthy.Ruling Passions asks democratic theorists to pay more attention to the "governing pluralism" that characterizes a diverse, complex democracy. It challenges moral philosophy to adapt its prescriptions to the real requirements of democratic life, to pay more attention to the virtues of political compromise and the varieties of human character. And it calls on all democratic citizens to appreciate "democratic constancy": the limited yet serious standard of ethical character to which imperfect democratic citizens may rightly hold their leaders--and themselves.

Excerpt

In the previous chapter, I discussed the conflict between two approaches to political office, one stressing ethical universalism and the other focusing on particularistic relationships. I argued that both approaches had merit, and that we should therefore try to resolve the clash between them through a principled compromise. Such a compromise was within reach, both because each approach in its most credible form made limited and negotiable claims, and because our current political institutions and ideas reflected a world in which extreme positions had already lost and the partisans of both universalism and particularism had been forced to agree to a grudging peace with each other. Finally, I sketched briefly the form that such a compromise takes: a division of moral responsibility in which the occupant of a political office ought to act in such a way that the purpose of the office is well served. in this way, the constituencies of each office are respected; ordinary citizens are able to place broad trust in politicians whom they can count on to act in more or less consistent ways; different and valuable modes of political action are allowed to operate, each in its own sphere—and all this particularity must pay homage to universalist concerns, since each office must justify itself in terms of the service it provides to the democratic polity as a whole.

This chapter will flesh out how this account of democratic office improves on simple or naïve accounts that stress universalism on the one hand or particularism on the other. As in the last chapter, the hard part of this is to justify particularism, to explain how apparently unprincipled concessions to partial, local, or partisan claims need not offend our attachment to the good of the whole. I shall in fact claim even more than this: common political goods are best safeguarded by people who take pride in their particular service to parties, constituencies, and particular political institutions and forms of politics, and who are responsive to the moral claims of these partial units as well as to more general ones. On the other hand, not every particular attachment deserves our respect. Democratic politics demands that particular claims respect democratic ends (equality and popular rule) and democratic means (accountability to public opinion, expressed ultimately in terms of numbers and the sentiments of popular majorities). Thus, those looking to the good of a whole . . .

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