Political Assholes

Aaron James, a philosopher at University of California Irvine, has a wonderful short book entitled Assholes: A Theory (Doubleday 2012). The title may suggest that it is a silly pop philosophy book aimed at titillation rather than illumination. But it’s actually a highly insightful and persuasive analysis of what it means to be an asshole as opposed to a schmuck, bitch, or psychopath. Crucially for James being an asshole involves a specific kind of moral failing and it is the character of this moral failing that makes assholes both infuriating and destructive to valuable forms of social cooperation. The theory in a nutshell has three components. The asshole: “(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; (2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and (3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other”.  (James offers a brief summary of his theory here.)

James gives many useful illustrations of the different kinds of asshole that arise in different social contexts from surfing to the corporate world. (A particularly interesting chapter is devoted to assholes and capitalism. James has a lot of interesting things to say about an ugly form of capitalism in which the 1% portray grotesquely greedy demands for remuneration as a basic entitlements.) There are many political examples and that fact that they seem to be so familiar is itself disturbing. But as an American, James draws most of the illustrations from American public culture so there is little discussion of what results the theory might generate in Canada….

In following discussion of the oxymoronically titled Fair Elections Act, I have been struck by the way in which members of the Conservative party believe it is democratically acceptable to ram through a piece of legislation that is clearly designed to confer special advantages on the Conservative party in contesting elections. The Conservatives clearly believe that the majority they enjoy in parliament entitles them to limit opportunities for careful scrutiny of the bill and that they have no reason to give serious consideration to modest amendments that might merely temper the worst facets of the bill. They also view themselves as immune to criticism. Conservatives have contemptuously dismissed the grave concerns that scores of academics, journalists, election experts and NGOs have expressed about the bill. The facts the proposed legislation threatens to disenfranchise citizens and that there is no problem of voter fraud to be solved are treated as irrelevant in the Conservative conception of democratic discourse.

Regrettably, this kind of conduct by the Conservatives is not anomalous. One need only recall Harper’s cynical use of prorogation to retain the power to which he felt entitled. The objections of constitutional experts be damned. Or the efforts to gut the funding for Insite – the successful supervised injection site program in Vancouver. Medical experts be damned. Or the government’s decision to withdraw from the Kyoto accord. Science be damned. Or the decision to make the long form census no longer mandatory. Statistical evidence be damned. Or the decision to ignore rules for the appointment of Supreme Court justices. Law be damned. And so on.

In all these cases, the actions of the Conservatives fulfill the criteria laid out in James’ theory: they display a desire to secure special advantages or exemptions from rules or political conventions; they are grounded in a sense of political entitlement; and they are pursued in a way that expresses indifference to criticism. Their actions disrupt and undermine the kind of respectful, evidence-based, reason regulated, co-operative discourse on which a vibrant democracy depends. So in light of James’ theory, what does all this imply about the political character of many Conservatives in the current government? Draw your own conclusions.



Political Assholes — 6 Comments

  1. Colin, let me just add, see how they made you say ‘Fair Elections Act’?

  2. It’s not clear how and why the “three components” of this “theory” should be transposed from individuals’ daily l lives to partisan politics. After all, electoral politics prioritizes and rewards a unique set of norms in all sorts of areas. Moreover, even ordinary observers of politics tend to be influenced by partisanship, and a signal failing of the partisan is being quick to highlight sins on one side while ignoring them on the other.

    For instance, if you had spoken to any conservative (and not only conservative!) in the 1990s through early 2000s, they would have certainly told you that the governing Liberals were the very MODEL of an actor who (a) sought to systematically allow themselves special advantages (2) did so out of an entrenched sense of entitlement (3) were immunized to complaint by a sense of entitlement.

    Indeed, it’s hard to think of a party in power for any length of time who has not faced such allegations, and usually with some plausibility (at the very least!). Whereas the sorts of norms governing the behaviour of ordinary citizens are very different: that’s why the charge of being an asshole can have some real sting in daily life. But it doesn’t help us to understand the actions of succesful politicians, I don’t think. It seems more like a highfalutin-yet-unreflective excuse for academics to apply obscene terminology to politicians they don’t like (but not out of an entrenched sense entitlement, surely!).

  3. It may be that other politicians from other parties fulfill the criteria. Others can decide that and determine what conclusions to draw. I am not concerned with partisanship per se – it surely has a legitimate role to play in democratic politics. I also accept that the standards for assessing appropriate political conduct are, in some respects, importantly different from the norms we apply in other contexts. But I do view democratic politics as a cooperative exercise that is governed by norms of discourse and deliberation in which the giving and taking of reasons and sensitivity to evidence matters a lot. Legitimate political partisanship in my view, neither requires nor permits the flouting these norms. In my view, the recent conduct of many Conservatives is problematic because it runs roughshod over important democratic values. This conduct is not made more excusable by the fact that other politicians from other parties have acted in democratically disgraceful ways.

  4. Good stuff. I’m largely in agreement on the substantive issues of cooperation, discourse, deliberation, giving and taking of reasons, sensitivity to evidence, etc. I guess I just doubt that those are reflected in finding highfaultin ways to throw around playground insults.

    (And don’t get me wrong: I enjoy roughhouse rhetoric in the right time and place, especially when it’s not dressed up with a misleading patina of academic respectability. Indeed, I originally wrote an obscene riposte based on a Liberal government and a different anatomical part, but then I decided that really wasn’t very constructive. And I still doubt that much is gained from any point of view – scholarly, strategic or rhetorical – by finding an abstruse way of calling Harper or whomever an “asshole”. I mean, people use the unvarnished word all the time, and how far has it gotten them?)

  5. Contrary to John Forrest, it seems pretty clear to me. Now, there probably are pressures in partisan political life to be an asshole, or selection pressures pushing assholes to success in it. Other parties and past administrations have been assholes to some extent or other.
    But I think the departure remains clear. Never before has there been such a thorough dismissal of ideas such as that having rules of the game that everyone follows has some virtue in itself, or that the opponents are also people with moral status of their own, or that governance is supposed to be for the benefit of the broader public in some way. In the past, for instance, parties might have squabbled in committee and tried to play the committee game to benefit their side, but they still assumed that there was some point to scrutinizing legislation in committee to try to find better versions, ones that avoided catchable mistakes that could lead to bad results, ones that perhaps served the interests of all parties to some extent. To the current Conservatives, scrutinizing legislation is a pure negative; ideally they’d prefer the opposition didn’t get to see the stuff until after it was passed if then. Someone from the Libs or NDP finding an important typo doesn’t mean the legislation should be fixed, it means if you’re not careful you might have to admit Conservatives can make a mistake. The only possible reason to have a committee meeting is to find some opportunity to win something at the other parties’ expense. And so they have their playbook for undermining committee work, they take everything in camera, and they write legislation to be as un-scrutinizable as possible (huge omnibus bills for instance). The assholishness is pure and unadulterated; there is essentially nothing else left but asshole in the way the Conservative party pursues its goals. I was going to say “policy” goals, but part of the problem here is that most of the goals aren’t even really “policy” goals as such, they’re just goals to enable further asshole behaviour with fewer restraints. Take some of the environmental laws–say you had a government that wanted to privilege resource extraction over the environment–but they weren’t assholes. So, if they looked at the laws about waterways being polluted and stuff, they would change how things were weighted when the government looked at whether it was OK to pollute such waterways. They would say “OK, in balancing the advantages of resource extraction vs. the problems of pollution, rulings on whether polluting a waterway is OK will now treat the resource extraction as being this much more valuable, and the pollution as being this much less significant.” This would be a policy decision, one which could be argued on the merits, rebalanced if it didn’t work out well, whatever. I’d disagree with it still, mind you. Now the Conservative approach: We’ll just redefine the laws about waterways and pollution not to apply to most of the waterways–like, at all–hide the change in a massive bill about umpteen other kinds of stuff, drop the hammer on debate, and then change it so the decisions get made by a department that has nothing to do with pollution from now on. Doing it that way isn’t about policy, it’s about being assholes: We are entitled to have our way, and we will redefine everything so nobody can get in our way, and if it’s terrible policy we don’t care and it’s not for anyone other than our entitled selves to know about much less criticize.
    So yeah, I think the Conservatives are assholes in the sense of this theory, and in a way and to a degree that no other political party in my lifetime have been, to the point where being assholes dominates their approach to doing politics, making policy and so on.

  6. I haven’t looked at Aaron James’s monograph in a while and I don’t have it on hand. But his account of assholery struck me as a disappointment when I first read it because it didn’t seem like he gave any morally-neutral way of distinguishing certain kinds of assholes from certain kinds of righteous people.

    In some cases, the righteous person might be (a) possessed of a privilege which they consider a moral right, (b) be part of a minority that does as a matter of fact enjoy access to scarce resources associated with the right, and (c) be immunized from complaints of those who are deprived of the resource on the grounds that they too have the right (e.g., Canadians enjoy plentiful access to fresh water, which is a human right). Yet a certain kind of asshole might have all of those characteristics as well (e.g., a rich kid who advocates free enterprise reflexively). At least on first blush, it seems to me that the only plausible difference between the righteous person and the asshole is that the righteous person has an interesting moral story to tell while the asshole doesn’t.

    That said, the Harper government is known for some pretty bad storytelling. The Act is an example of that and worse.