This 100-Year-Old Essay Holds Clues for Defeating Trump
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Monday marks the 100th anniversary of the most important political essay of the 20th century, “Politics as a Vocation,” by the German sociologist and legal theorist Max Weber. The essay includes a topical lesson for Americans as candidates announce their plans to take on President Donald Trump in the 2020 election:
Politics isn’t the realm of pure, absolute moral conscience, where everything can be described as right or wrong, black or white.
Politics is the domain of what Weber called the “ethic of responsibility” — a careful balancing of interests with an eye on the real-world consequences of political choices.
If the candidates — or the voters — make the mistake of treating the effort to defeat Trump as a moral crusade, rather than a political battle to be won on the ground, the result may be that Trump gets re-elected, and the failure discredits politics itself.
Weber gave the lecture that became the essay in the midst of the German revolution that followed the country’s defeat in World War I. His audience was a group of students in Munich, convening at a time when socialism was the youth culture and appeared in the ascendant.
Weber, in contrast, was a 54-year-old liberal — a point he made memorably in the lecture: “The fact that someone is twenty years of age and that I am over fifty is no cause for me to think that this alone is an achievement before which I am overawed.”
“Politics as a Vocation” includes many rich ideas, from a famous statement of the types of political legitimacy, to a discussion of Andrew Jackson and modern party politics, to the accurate prophecy that Germany was only a decade away from a “polar night of icy darkness and hardness.”
The idea that is most important now, however, is Weber’s distinction between two ways of seeing the world: an ethic of “absolute ends,” sometimes translated as the “ethic of conscience” or of “moral conviction,” and an ethic of responsibility.
The ethic of conscience, according to Weber, is the worldview of religion, exemplified in Christian teachings: “Take all you have and give it to the poor,” “Turn the other cheek,” and “All they that take the sword shall perish by the sword.”
The “absolute ethic of the gospel,” Weber argued, is “no joking matter.” Jesus’s moral commands require a renunciation of power in all its forms. Such absolute morality, Weber explained, is inconsistent with politics — because politics is centrally concerned with power.
Weber didn’t blink from the fact that power in the real world is exercised in the shadow of the possibility of violence. Instead, he used that reality to offer his account of the core value of politics: responsibility for consequences.
The politician’s “ethic of responsibility” is a way of seeing the world that always asks something like, what will actually happen as a result of what we choose to do?
That question leads to very different choices than pure morality — so much so that Weber bluntly asserted, “It is in the nature of officials of high moral standing to be poor politicians, and above all, in the political sense of the word, to be irresponsible politicians.”
To be sure, Weber didn’t want politicians with no moral backbone at all. He believed a politician would eventually reach a point where he would draw the line and say (as did Martin Luther when he was told to retract his Protestantism), “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
In other words, Weber wasn’t an absolutist about rejecting absolutism. His ideal politician supplemented a sense of responsibility with “passion” and “a sense of proportion.”
The lessons for the coming push to beat Trump are immediate and important.
Faced with a president whose behavior flouts our deepest moral values, it is very tempting to think that the correct political response is to insist on our moral truths, and to point out how immoral Trump is.
Moral arguments in politics are fine — so long as they are oriented toward winning. But there is a great risk that a campaign focused on the purity and morality of the candidates and their beliefs and records will not produce a candidate who can beat Trump.
The ethic of responsibility says that politicians have to mount campaigns that can actually win. That means compromise — including compromise on issues that are value-laden when seen from the standpoint of morality.
To beat Trump, a candidate needs to win over at least some people who voted for Trump in 2016. Those voters probably don’t want to spend the whole campaign hearing how deplorable they are, or were.
Nothing would be easier for Democrats and independents than to treat the 2020 election as a morality play. And nothing would be more irresponsible.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.”
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