Newspapers in France have scrupulously covered the trial of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy who was found guilty of corruption and influence-peddling by a court in Paris and sentenced to prison. The United States press is continually reporting on former President Donald Trump’s legal difficulties, which include calls to try to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia as well as investigations into his tax returns and bank fraud by the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. The local Geneva newspapers can’t get enough of the trial of Conseiller d’Etat Pierre Maudet for lying about who paid for his personal/public trip to Abu Dhabi with his family. And we could easily add the media frenzy in the U.S. in the unravelling revelations of misdeeds by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
In discussing the various ethical implications of these scandals with a left-wing Geneva politician, I was startled when he declared: “All politicians lie and cheat.” Really? He seem to accept that lying and cheating were normal parts of political life. That was his perspective, after many years as a prominent Socialist parliamentarian.
Is he right? What should we expect from those we democratically elect? Shouldn’t we hold them to the highest ethical standards? After all, they are our representatives, duly chosen by us to promote the common good. Or, should we ignore the legal problems of Sarkozy, Trump and Maudet and say; “They’re just normal politicians.”
The eminent political philosopher Michael Walzer wrote a seminal article on this subject – “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.” Walzer begins from the question of “the relative ease or difficulty - or impossibility - of living a moral life” in this world. Walzer is interested in the specific dilemma of the politician’s “living a moral life.”
In presenting the politician’s dilemma Walzer quotes a character in a play by Jean Paul Sartre: "I have dirty hands right up to the elbows. I've plunged them in filth and blood. Do you think you can govern innocently?" Walzer’s answer to the character’s question is a categorical “no”. “I don't think I could govern innocently,” Walzer replies, “nor do most of us believe that those who govern us are innocent.”
Walzer’s position in defending the dirty hands of politicians has several parts. First, the politician must make certain promises to get elected. “Hustling and lying are necessary because power and glory are so desirable - that is, so widely desired,” he argues. “And so the men who act for us and in our name are necessarily hustlers and liars.” For Walzer, those who seek office may say they want to serve for the general good, but that goal cannot exclude the element of personal glory.
Second, the politician is different from you and me. He or she must have confidence in their judgments more than we do. After all, that is why they were elected. Walzer believes that “The politician has, or pretends to have, a kind of confidence in his own judgment that the rest of us know to be presumptuous in any man.” So, we should not be surprised by the politician’s arrogance. Nor should we elect someone who does not show a special level of self-confidence.
In Walzer’s world, there are choices between an individual’s sense of right and wrong and working for the general good. Politicians are confronted with a world of situational choices. For Walzer, elected officials “have not won, after all, because they were good, or not only because of that,” he presumes, “but also because they were not good. No one succeeds in politics without getting his hands dirty.”
The politician is a tragic hero, one who is doomed to do “bad things,” but to do them well in the general interest. Walzer quotes Hamlet: "I must be cruel only to be kind." And this kindness has its rewards. When the politician succeeds in the world of dirty hands, he or she is praised for the success. But the success came at the price of getting dirty hands. There is no other way to succeed in politics, hence the tragic nature of the moral politician once entering the immoral political world.
But Sarkozy, Trump and Maudet have more than moral dilemmas. They are not tragic heroes. Au contraire. They have criminal cases against them that are well beyond the inherent tensions in political life. Sarkozy and Maudet have been convicted, Trump will certainly be held criminally libel in the future. Beyond Walzer’s tragic hero who enters the world of politics to do good for the general public, Sarkozy, Trump and Maudet have betrayed the confidence of the electorate. They have more than a moral dilemma.
Do all politicians lie and cheat? Probably yes in the moral sense. But the three examples cited go beyond the inherent moral tensions of everyday politics. It may be that all politicians lie and cheat, but they don’t have to be criminals. Sarkozy, Trump and Maudet have more than dirty hands.