Posted by: Jeff | March 5, 2010

Political Courage and Its Discontents

Lots of good stuff in The New Republic today. Here’s William Galston writing on the subject of political courage, which he defines as “the willingness to go against public opinion in pursuit of what a leader believes to be the public interest.”

And unless one believes—against all evidence—that democracies can do without courage, so defined, it follows that there’s nothing necessarily undemocratic about defying public opinion when the stakes are high. After all, the people will soon have the opportunity to pass judgment on the leader’s decision. And they will be able to judge that decision, not by the claims of its supporters or detractors, but by its results.

Note that to accept this argument, as I do, is to deny that President Obama and the Democrats are acting high-handedly—let alone anti-democratically—in moving forward with comprehensive health insurance reform. They genuinely believe that the public interest demands it­—and that the people themselves will eventually agree. And they know that the people will have the last word.

The paradox of political courage, as I’ve complained before, is that it’s something the public always says it wants in theory but always rejects in practice. And this isn’t so much because the public is stupid or hypocritical. (Though they may very well be both.) It’s because of the nature of the thing itself. If political courage lies in rejecting the public’s opinion when necessary, then for the public to call for more political courage is basically the equivalent of saying “we want more politicians who are willing to tell us to fuck off when we get angry or impassioned about something.”

What any individual really means when they call for more political courage is that they want politicians to back policies they themselves happen to support even when the rest of the public doesn’t. Which is telling, given that Galston starts his post by bouncing off this other post by conservative Pete Wehner, which calls the Iraq war and the Iraq surge “one of the most impressive and important acts of political courage in our lifetime.” Somehow, I doubt Wehner would be willing to apply that same label to the Democrat’s current push for health care reform, even though it’s a similar battle against public opinion for what they believe to be in the country’s best interests.

Now, I do not deny for a moment that championing the surge in the face of Americans’ disgust and frustration with the Iraq war required some serious brass balls on the part of President Bush. I just think the surge was, on the merits, a costly, foolish and hubristic blunder which could very well guarantee that America remains an occupier of Iraq for the next fifty years (Let me be the first to say that I would be thrilled to be proven wrong on this point.) I’m sure Wehner would have similarly negative things to say about the current health care reform bill. All of which goes to show that political courage may be nice to applaud, but it really only does you any good when it’s put in the service of meritorious policies.

(I’d also add that I think, as a matter of human nature, political courage is more likely to be put in the service of dumb policies rather than smart ones. Smart policy comes from smart politicians, and smart politicians are usually much more willing to listen to other people and to compromise. There’s a fine line between courage and stubborn stupidity, especially in politics.)

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