Chris Christie and the Decline of Political Virtue

There are rules in the political world.  Rules of honor and shame.  Rules of respect.

We respect the office that people hold.  Even if they are not our candidate, we may address them with their title, and allow them to do the specific role they were elected to do.

Tradition, custom, and law, guides us.

They can help us be gracious victors and magnanimous losers.  After an election, the loser offers their respect and sometimes support.  The victor acknowledges the campaign was hard fought, and both make a nod to the theater of politics.  They even call each other on the phone.  It’s politics, not war.

We should be disturbed when these customs, these rituals, aren’t acknowledged.  When Ken Cucinelli refused to call McCauliffe after the Virginia Governor’s race because it demonstrated an inability to depersonalize the political, to still see a human being outside one’s political party.

Christie didn’t want to just win, but to get total victory for election to New Jersey.  Not merely 51% but as much as possible.  I’m not convinced that’s the presenting legal issue, but it reveals a bit about our current political culture.   Nobody wants to lose, for the stakes are too high.  And nobody wants a weak victory, because that means negotiation with the opponent down the road.  These battles are great for the media, because we find these stories compelling.

When total victory becomes our desire, the rules of respect get broken.   Our public life suffers.  It is for this reason Chris Christie represents both an entertaining, but fundamentally destructive, symbol of our political life.

Let me admit I had a fondness for exactly what I find dangerous about his style of politics.   Since I deeply want a credible Republican party that believes in math and evolution, I was giving him a fairly long leash.  But overall, his open contempt for the traditions that make governing possible may render his own office to be ineffective.  Who would trust him now?

When he refused, for the first time in the governor’s history, not to approve the tenure of Judge Warren, he disrespected the traditions and roles that had preceded him, taking an expansive view of his own authority.  The Democrats, furious, asserted their own authority.  And thus, we identify another place where a breakdown of tradition resulted in a fairly needless political controversy.

Certainly no political institution or party is immune from responding hysterically to microscopic issues, from seeking public vindication to increase one’s political capital.  In part it’s because it’s remarkably difficult to address the challenges that are facing our common life effectively.  Outrage is remarkably easy for everyone.

But as the right loses their belief in custom and authority, they lose what makes make politics, and compromise, possible: a halt in the dynamic of outrage.  Burke’s understanding of conservatism and its attenuating habits was that it protects us from violence; the respect of traditions was a respect of people.  But Christie, I believe, benefitted from a media culture that found contempt appealing, and a conservative class that has a revolutionary base.

Admittedly, what I liked about Christie is what I liked about LBJ – a sense of his own power.  But unlike the 1960’s, private vindictiveness became public, and as our ideological points become polarized, compromise becomes a political liability.  I wouldn’t single out Christi here.

I enjoyed Christ’s forwardness. Perhaps, however, it was a veil to misdirect the public and a way to undermine his opponents.  He eagerly fed an avaricious public’s desire for simple good vs evil narratives: making his opponents seem uncooperative, simple and weak.  This has revealed how his own effectiveness depended upon identifying and punishing enemies.  To some extent, It’s the political game; but we need these counter traditions of respect, reverence and restraint to balance our impulse to outrage and to actually make legislation.

Chris Christie represents an overall decline of our political culture.  Yes, by nature, politics is messy, clean, and vindictive.  But this is why there are rules of respect given each person’s office and where effective politicians are forgiving and rarely hold a grudge.  Christie used his office, and his presence, to hold others with contempt.  We shouldn’t be surprised that his circle of advisers understood this as a legitimate way to govern.