It's Time We Retire The Invented Distinction Between Political Belief And Personal Character

It provides a loophole for the reprehensible to sneak by without being termed as such.
06/30/2017 02:33 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2017

The idea that “the personal is political” has, at this point, gone far beyond cliché. Especially now, when political war is tirelessly waged on the very identities and dignity of vulnerable communities, it should go without saying that one cannot reasonably or responsibly extricate political initiatives from their effects on persons. The personal has always been political, especially in a nation where some of the most contentious political questions have been about the nature of personhood, and who gets to claim it. The personal has always been political because, in a government supposedly by and for the people, the political is necessarily a sum of the personal.

This notion (and the feeling that, by now, it’s old hat) makes a recent tweet from former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara somewhat confounding. It also, however, marks the tweet as illustrative of a fundamental lie that Americans often tell themselves in their quest for political civility.

“Much of the issue with Trump is not about party, policy or ideology, but lack of decency, honesty, character, temperament, adulthood, shame,” Bharara wrote, in the wake of a pair of tweets from President Trump, which mocked Morning Joe cohost Mika Brzezinski for apparently showing up to Trump’s Mara Lago resort while visibly recovering from a facelift. The tweets represented a brazenly misogynistic attack, which the White House defended as just retaliation in the wake of Morning Joe’s negative coverage of Trump. None of this is out of character for the President, who famously bragged about his ability to sexual assault women as he pleased on tape, and attributed then-FOX commentator Megyn Kelly’s supposedly negative treatment of him to “blood coming out of her wherever.” Trump’s Brzezinski comments were so on-brand, in fact, that watching Republican lawmakers suddenly act as though they were shocking and unexpected was nearly as repulsive as the comments themselves.

But I’m less interested in Trump’s comments than in Bharara’s response, which feels absurdly wrongheaded. In essence Bharara’s tweet is attempting to make a distinction between the personal and the political, arguing that the Trump administration is abhorrent and dangerous not because of the political systems it aligns itself with, but because of the personalities of which those systems are now at the behest. Put in the bluntest terms, Bharara is saying that Trump is bad not because he is a Republican (though, I’m sure many Republicans would dispute the association) but because he’s an asshole.

It would most likely be too cheap to ask what the difference is, so instead I’ll simply argue that the distinction Bharara is drawing is entirely manufactured, patently bullshit. It’s a distinction that acts as though party, policy, and ideology are extricable from character, and stealthily (though, perhaps, unintentionally) serves to exonerate Republicans who have had the courtesy to be less crude in their behavior but equally cruel in their agenda. It’s frankly baffling to differentiate between political alignment and moral makeup, especially in the terms Bharara chooses (I mean, come on. Are we seriously going to put ideology and character in opposition to one another? Are we sincerely going to act as though one’s ideas spring from anything other than their system of values? Spare me).

If we acknowledge that the personal is political (that one’s individual identity is a question of political importance) then we must also accept that the political is personal (that one’s political choices are reflective of their personal choices). This means separating ourselves from the conveniently non-confrontational sense that you can vote for monstrous political initiatives while still being a good person. Because you can’t. And you never could.

This tension sits at the heart of our national struggle right now, but it’s also the reason we got here. When people complain about how heated discourse has become (like those who argue that saying a healthcare bill that will cause thousands if not millions of deaths will, well, cause thousands if not millions of deaths, is somehow inappropriate), they are really complaining about the fact that politics are no longer being discussed on a solely political level. They are complaining that they are now being personally associated with the moral machinery of their political choices. They are uncomfortable with the fact that they are being held accountable for their behavior.

This discomfort also explains the post-election push-back against the idea of so-called “Identity Politics.” To acknowledge the importance of Identity Politics, their legitimacy, and ultimate centrality is to acknowledge the personal import of political action. Identity Politics demand that the system be viewed as a function of the people it affects. Such a political approach restructures social, economic, and other discussions, and forces them out of the abstract. It demands that we reckon with the personal meaning of our political actions.

Denying the linkage between the personal and political and providing those who do political evil with an imaginary buffer zone between their political beliefs and their moral fiber is fundamentally dishonest, and—I would argue—fundamental to understanding why we are where we are, currently. Utilizing this artificial framework allowed Americans to preserve a level of political civility that necessitated the erasure of certain ugly truths: that large swaths of the population were voting in favor of systemic bigotry, that Republican economic austerity and its ideological rationales were underpinned by personal greed, that willing hurting other people for your own benefit is just as bad at the ballot box as it is everywhere else.

But, it’s uncomfortable to reckon with the fact that large numbers of Americans supported, frankly, evil policies. If you’re not affected by those policies it may be easier to deny the evil of these policies by re-framing them in political terms, divorcing it from personal beliefs. Civility was far preferable to the open confrontation that would come with calling a spade a spade, and there was little price to pay for politicians with little skin in the game.

The result of this? Well, those evils could be normalized. They could be re-imagined and re-titled, festooned with bits of intellectualization that, if you squinted, might disguise what was at their heart and the heart of the people who conceived them. It also prevented those Americans who would go to the ballot box in favor of politicians enacting such virulent policy from reckoning with how their votes reflected on them. They could vote for party rather than morality because the lie that these two things were different had become so commonplace. Just as the history of the American Civil War had been rewritten in political as opposed to personal terms (“It was about small government and States’ Rights, not slavery! Slave owners wanted the government out of their hair! They didn’t actually hate Black people!”), so too was everything else. Voting for an openly homophobic candidate didn’t make you homophobic! You could overlook the problematic policies of your candidate instead of reckoning with your political choices! No need for self-reflection. No need to question why you supported what you supported. No need to deal with the anxiety or emotional penance of lending a hand to systemic abuse. America could just sit back, and let it all fester.

Republican support for Trump, despite behavior they claimed to find personally disgusting, was rationalized as a purely political calculation. They supported him because he represented their party, because he could help them enact their political agenda. They told themselves that there was a difference between who he was as a person, and who he was as a political figure and tool for policy. Sure, he’s a vile misogynist. Certainly, he’s virulently xenophobic and racist. But, he’s a Republican, and that’s what matters. The Republican support (lawmakers and voters, alike) of Donald Trump was entirely predicated on the lie that policy and personality were somehow different, that a vote for Trump was just a vote for party, that the vote and the candidate did not reflect on the voter. After decades of hearing that they could vote for terrible people and support terrible political ideas without being terrible themselves, voters were put in the position where a horrid person with horrid ideas promised them comfort and pride, and one of the few attempts to hold accountable those who saw this trade-off as logical and worthwhile was derided as mean-spirited.

So, how did that bullshit work out?

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that there’s a real danger and dishonesty to denying that moral accountability should be kept out of our understanding of politics. One need only scan the political horizon to see what the result of that dishonesty looks like.

It’s the responsibility of every single person to acknowledge the personal import of our political choices. Why are we willing to accept certain trade-offs? What do we consider our breaking point in terms of what we’ll stand for? What does that say about us?

It’s also our responsibility to reject the idea that the comfort of assuming those who do evil are secretly not all that bad, simply because that evil isn’t being delivered unto us. It’s our responsibility not to flee from the confrontation inherent to holding others morally accountable for the policies they support. To privilege civility over honesty has only ever let those who have shown zero concern for civility in the past to shamelessly enact dangerous ideologies without fear of being called out, truly taken to task. To separate the personal from the political, to act as though they are planets outside of one another’s gravity, is to provide a loophole for the reprehensible to sneak by without being termed as such and for those who support it to do so without consequence. It allows us to act as though there’s unacceptable cruelty (say, the KKK) and acceptable cruelty (politically supported anti-Blackness), because one is personal, the other political, and the two are unrelated.

As Preet Bharara tweeted, character and temperament are certainly the problem here. But so is party, so is policy, so is ideology. Because these things are not different. They never have been, and—in a government composed of people—they absolutely never will be. We cannot allow a party that bakes misogyny deep into its policy to avoid the scorn handed to an open misogynist, simply because the latter says “grab ’em by the pussy” on camera, and the former has the decency to use only the gentlest of language when robbing women of their autonomy via legislation.

The personal is political. The political is personal. Character and political ideology are inextricable. It’s time we stopped deluding ourselves for the sake of convenience, and perhaps time for the so-called “Party of Personal Responsibility” to look in the mirror and earn its nickname.

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