Sunday, March 8, 2015

Why the current email controversy is evidence that Hillary Clinton will be president. (Or, some thoughts on political argument).


Hillary Clinton is the single most qualified presidential candidate in the 2016 election cycle. In fact, she is one of the most qualified people to ever run for president, period. Only a few candidates have ever had eight years’ experience in the white house, only six presidents have been Secretary of State, and her time as Senator of New York, combined with her understanding of rural politics in Arkansas, means that she understands better than almost anyone what it means to govern America. Her doing all of this as a woman only makes her achievements more impressive. Women are not treated well by the American political process.

There are many who will not vote for her because she is pro-choice or because she believes in universal healthcare. This is fine; people are entitle to vote on their beliefs. But their doing so does not mean she is unqualified, it only means that some voters disapprove of her. The misconception that disagreement is the same thing as lack of qualification is one of the most destructive aspects of the American political system. It comes from the same places as vaccine denial and climate-change denial. It assumes that personal conviction has more legitimacy than process, skill, and experience. It prioritizes conclusion over evidence. A liberal friend once commented that Elizabeth Warren was more qualified than Clinton because Warren doesn’t take the same corporate money. Even if this were true about Warren, it is precisely what I’m discussing. It represents a complete confusion of the subjective over the objective. Warren may represent my friend’s values better, but there is no defensible argument that she is more qualified: that she has more knowledge, experience, and relevant capabilities.

On the right, Clinton’s political enemies have been insinuating wrong-doings for years, but they have all been invented. Whitewater never amounted to anything, neither did Travelgate nor Benghazi, nor the obscene suggestion that she had Vince Foster killed. The current email fracas is just the latest fiction on this list and the need to create it rather than offer genuine critique proves my point.

For those who have missed the headlines, Clinton is under attack because she used a personal email account while Secretary of State rather than a government account. There are legitimate reasons to be upset by this. Her email may not have been as secure (although it could have been more so). There is no independent body to verify that all her emails have been properly documented (but this doesn’t mean that her own index isn’t accurate). And using a personal server was either fine or against the rules, depending on who you believe. But her behavior, whether technically improper or not, was sanctioned by virtually everyone she worked with. The entire government gave tacit consent and, as such, if she was wrong to do it, her supervisors’ need to be held accountable, not her.

“Tacit consent” is a central concept in the American tradition. It’s most famous use is by John Locke in his discussion of the social contract; American government is intentionally Lockean. His theory states that people are bound by laws because they are parties in a contract that they consented to, that citizens must willingly accept regulation, even while they work to change them. In response to the objection that children born under such a government society never actually signed a contract, he (and his followers) respond that by remaining in the society, they submit to the contract tacitly, that their very presence constitutes an agreement. This is the same point that Socrates argues in Plato’s Crito and that pro-Vietnam voices refereed to when they shouted “America, love it or leave it” to protestors (although both are, in my opinion, fairly misguided). By emailing Clinton, treating her choice of email as business-as-usual, and by not even asking her to change her practice (let alone ordering it), all of her colleagues assented to her behavior, thereby giving her the permission to continue it.

My argument is not that there may not have been a violation of policy on her part, but rather, that there was no deception, and, as such, there is no scandal. And even if she had kept her personal email specifically to keep secrets (for which there is currently no evidence), as Sissela Bok writes in her remarkable book Secrets, being secretive can be morally praiseworthy if people and governments are open about keeping those secrets. When they are up-front about it, it gives others the chance to challenge the secrecy and evaluate the claim to privacy. No one challenged Clinton for years and when they did, she complied immediately.

I write all of this to make a simple point: these made-up scandals are the best her opponents can do and as a result, they are the best case for her presidency not against it. Her critics have to create controversies precisely because of her unchallengeable competence and in the end, they’re absurdity reveals her superiority as a candidate. Perhaps worse, the lies both undermine the American political system and diminish the Republican brand. Her opponents would get much farther and reach more people if they simply celebrated Clinton’s competence and experience, while simultaneously urging voters to reject her based on her policies and votes.

The quality of any election is based on the rhetoric of the ways people oppose one another. Clinton is the frontrunner. It is up to her challengers to set the moral tone for debate and for the country. If that tone is built on dishonesty, then the democracy falls apart regardless of who wins.


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1 comment:

  1. Bill, did you miss that entire bit on John Locke and tacit consent? Also,having been in the military myself and in positions of commanding soldiers, I can guarantee that when you are in such a position every other leader in a similar or higher position is charged with making certain you do it right. This means every member of Congress in regards to cabinet positions, and they take an oath to such. That's the reason the Senate can subpoena ANYONE. That's the point of the clause "all enemies foreign and domestic." If congress did not object before, they have no moral high ground to object now because either they gave tacit approval or they failed in their oath. For the sake of our country, I'll go with the tacit approval option.

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