The Politics of Motives

During the Vice Presidential debate last Thursday, there was a point when I scrambled for a pen and paper, and it was to write down the final two lines of this statement from Senator Joseph Biden:

I have been able to work across the aisle on some of the most controversial issues and change my party’s mind, as well as Republicans’, because I learned a lesson from Mike Mansfield.

Mike Mansfield, a former leader of the Senate, said to me one day — he — I made a criticism of Jesse Helms. He said, “What would you do if I told you Jesse Helms and Dot Helms had adopted a child who had braces and was in real need?” I said, “I’d feel like a jerk.”

He said, “Joe, understand one thing. Everyone’s sent here for a reason, because there’s something in them that their folks like. Don’t question their motive.”

I have never since that moment in my first year questioned the motive of another member of the Congress or Senate with whom I’ve disagreed. I’ve questioned their judgment (see the entire transcript here).

It was a strong statement, and it was delivered with force. But I was left thinking about how Biden must understand the difference between judgment and motive or, better yet, how he wanted his audience to believe he understands them.

I promise I’ll try not to talk too much theory, but at any mention of “motives,” my mind immediately travels back to Kenneth Burke, a notoriously difficult-to-comprehend mid-twentieth-century theorist, who would have us believe that the finale of one’s decision or action comes out of a motive regardless of how it may seem. One’s motive, even if unknown to the individual, is what drives a person to act and is what underlies that person’s judgment throughout the process. Motives, in other words, precede and therefore shape judgment.

But this point isn’t what Biden is getting at. In this instance the senator sounds more like Wayne Booth, another scholar, who argued that politics would be more straightforward and productive if politicians would simply agree on their commonalities first and lay out their differences second. If I’ve understood correctly, then, Biden is stating his commonality with all of Congress by saying he does not question a politician’s motives: A politician is elected based on her commonalities with her constituency. A politician is the people. The people are right because they are the people (and please note I’m not advocating circular reasoning here. I’m more so stating a basic assumption of democracy). Therefore, the politician – by virtue of having commonalities with the people who voted for her – automatically has good motives. If you question the motives of a politician, then you question the motives of the people. It’s an idealistic statement that doesn’t complicate itself by taking into account the imperfections of humans and the systems of order we create, but it’s a lovely idea.

Another important distinction Biden’s statement marks is the difference between logic (judgment) and a sometimes-unknowable drive (a person’s motives). Debating at the level of motives can often be fruitless in a Western, outcomes-centered society like our own. (Could you imagine Zen-like Congress?) But during the two presidential campaigns of the current administration, we saw a different move. George W. Bush spoke from his “gut” – not logic, but feeling and faith. His beliefs were undeniable because he felt they were true. And it worked. He’s been President for two terms. Regardless of all the talk about whether the Republicans stole the elections, the fact that so many people believed in his approach speaks volumes.

And so I’m left wondering whether Biden’s divorcing of the faculties of the mind (reason and will) is a move that’s appreciated by the voting public. It’s not a new idea. Certainly not – it’s been around since the Age of Enlightenment. But it’s a shift from the current administration. I understand that social consciousness changes according to its own rules, but if it turns out that the public respects this distinction, I wonder what has driven the shift. The bad marks of the current administration? (And I’m not revealing my own leanings here. The President currently has a job approval rating of anywhere from 28% – 34%.) Or a shift back to the ideals of the separation of Church and State? (Not that believing in one’s gut translates into religion, but both are a matter of faith.) Hmm.

Well, that’s all I’ve got. Questions but no answers. In fact, I have a bunch more questions related to the VP debate:

  • Journalism: During the first presidential debate, American Cable News Network CNN showed at the bottom of its screen (in the form of a line graph) real-time reactions from Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. During the vice presidential debate (and the following second presidential debate), they swapped out the three categories for those of Men and Women. What is CNN News reflecting latest news and breaking news by choosing and televising these distinctions? On the other hand, what is CNN creating in the minds of its viewers by feeding us such content?
  • Presentation: Folksy versus refined. Which works better in the current climate? How is the current administration (and its two preceding election seasons) affecting our responses? What other (dis)identifications can we point out between current and past political candidates?
  • Interactions: From the initial greeting of the candidates to their conversation on the stage, who referred to whom by first name? Who spoke directly to the other candidate and when? How did such moves affect the tone and content of the debate?
  • Taking jabs: The candidates occasionally played with and prodded at the terminologies used by the opposing campaign. When did or didn’t they work? Were there times when the points hit hard but were made at the cost of the candidates’ own standing?

These topics are not by any means exhaustive, but they’ve been on my mind. What’s on your mind?