The budget, the apocalypse, Weber and competing ethics
David Brooks’s July 4th column was a memorable analysis of his party’s role in the current budget morass, saying the GOP’s intransigence is such that it “may no longer be a normal party.”
Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.
The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.
The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it.
The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency.
On Monday, Brooks followed up by breaking down the various Republican factions contributing to the intransigence and relating it to a kind of religious affliction:
All of these groups share the same mentality. They do not see politics as the art of the possible. They do not believe in seizing opportunities to make steady, messy progress toward conservative goals. They believe that politics is a cataclysmic struggle. They believe that if they can remain pure in their faith then someday their party will win a total and permanent victory over its foes. They believe they are Gods of the New Dawn.
Powerful stuff, prophetic in its own right. But a commentary in this week’s New Yorker by George Packer cites Max Weber’s insights to provide a better handle on the dynamic at work:
The sociologist Max Weber, in his 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation,” drew a distinction between “the ethic of responsibility” and “the ethic of ultimate ends”—between those who act from a sense of practical consequence and those who act from higher conviction, regardless of consequences. These ethics are tragically opposed, but the true calling of politics requires a union of the two. On its own, the ethic of responsibility can become a devotion to technically correct procedure, while the ethic of ultimate ends can become fanaticism. Weber’s terms perfectly capture the toxic dynamic between the President, who takes responsibility as an end in itself, and the Republicans in Congress, who are destructively consumed with their own dogma. Neither side can be said to possess what Weber calls a “leader’s personality.” Responsibility without conviction is weak, but it is sane. Conviction without responsibility, in the current incarnation of the Republican Party, is raving mad.
Characterizing one’s opponents as loony is usually a crazy idea. But what are the deeper roots of the current stance by the GOP — or really the Tea Party-infused faction of the House Republicans that is calling the shots. Crazy? Crazy like a fox? If they are playing politics, they don’t seem to be doing a great job, judging by the polls. Then again, all politics is local, and maybe their own districts will love them. If they are playing the card of religious righteousness, well, they made their point. Or is this Samson pulling down the pillars of a pagan temple?
As E.J. Dionne writes today:
The Tea Party lives in an intellectual bubble where the answers to every problem lie in books by F.A. Hayek, Glenn Beck or Ayn Rand. Rand’s anti-government writings, regarded by her followers as modern-day scripture — Rand, an atheist, would have bridled at that comparison — are particularly instructive.
When the hero of Rand’s breakthrough novel, “The Fountainhead,” doesn’t get what he wants, he blows up a building. Rand’s followers see that as gallant. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that blowing up our government doesn’t seem to be a big deal to some of the new radical individualists in our House of Representatives.
There does seem to be some push for a budget deal, a promising one, based on the Senate’s Gang of Six plan. But can Republican leaders control their own? Or would the Tea Party types see compromising as invalidating their very identity?