Ends vs. Means: Republicans vs. Democrats

Robert Reich on the difference between Democrats and Republicans:

“The underlying problem is that Democrats care about means as well as ends, while Republicans care almost exclusively about ends and will use any means to get there. The paradox lies deeper. For most Democrats, the means are part of the ends. We want an electoral process that eschews the lying and cheating we’ve witnessed since Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks. If we use their tactics, we undermine our own goal, violating one of the very things that distinguishes us from them. Yet if we don’t stoop to their level, how can we prevail in a system that allows – even rewards – such lying and cheating?”

I think Reich oversimplifies a bit: it is simply a Democrats-vs-Republicans thing; it’s really about what kind of behavior institutions reward and the kind of incentives that it creates. And on this point I wholeheartedly agree with him: our electoral institutions create incentives for the kind fo vulgar campaigning that eschews serious, evidence-based discussion of policy for the kind of trivial, hysterical shouting match that we have seen for the past two three or four election cycles.

The question that Reich posts at the end is this:

“Those who are willing to do anything to achieve their ends will always have a tactical advantage over those who regard the means as ends in themselves. The question posed in this election, and, one hopes, by an Obama administration, is whether the moral authority generated by the latter position is itself enough to overcome these odds.”

The answer, I’m afraid, is no. Unless the institutions change, then it is not reasonable to expect actors within the institutional framework to change their behavior. Am I being too deterministic in reaching this conclusion? Perhaps: I don’t deny that an individual can, through force of will and/or luck, fundamentally change an institution, but such occurrences are rare. And instead of depending on these rare contingencies, we should be focused on the institution itself. If institutions do affect individual behavior the way that it does now, then surely a more productive way of getting change would be to change the institution.

Or, to play the devil’s advocate, which Reich does not seem to want to do, let me suggest that our electoral politics work the way they do because we, as voters, have allowed them. That is to say, the responsibility for the kind of shitty campaigning that we’ve all come to “hate” is really on our own shoulders. Is this not a case of wanting to have it both ways?

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