Democrats these days like to point out that President Bush and his partisans have performed an astonishing volte-face in the foreign policy arena. Bush campaigned for the presidency on a platform of humility toward other countries and extreme aversion to nation-building projects. But today, the United States is busy reconstructing the shattered societies of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Bush has committed the United States to a “forward strategy of freedom.” To critics, the continued loyalty of Bush’s supporters in the face of such a drastic policy reversal is evidence of rank hypocrisy and intellectual ineptitude. As Michael Kinsley, founder of Slate, recently wrote, “Almost all the pro-Bush voices — have remained pro-Bush even when ‘pro-Bush’ means the opposite of what it did five minutes ago. The Comintern at the height of its powers — couldn’t have engineered a more impressive U-turn.”
The unspoken flip-side of Kinsley’s formulation, though, is that being “anti-Bush” also means the opposite of what it did five minutes ago. In 2000, Bush’s foreign policy instincts were attacked for being too isolationist, too rooted in realpolitik, too dismissive of humanitarian endeavors. Now, all of a sudden, it is Bush’s newfound Wilsonian liberalism to which Democrats object. What we have, it seems, is logical incoherence all around. At least in the sphere of international relations, both parties’ analytic approaches and policy prescriptions have careened wildly to and fro, for no discernible reason other than raw political advantage.
Fine, you might say. Parties and politicians change course all the time to advance their interests — but you and I are a bit more principled than that. But are we really? For one thing, most people I know have maintained a fairly steady opinion (whether it be positive or negative) of Bush’s foreign policy, even though it is now almost the polar opposite of what it was when he became president. A similar situation holds with the federal budget. My conservative acquaintances once denounced, but are now happy to embrace, deficits. And my liberal friends, erstwhile advocates of Keynesian economics, have now become zealous guardians of the public fisc.
Even more insidiously, partisanship has a way of poisoning not only the positions we hold, but also the principles that guide us to those positions. In my undergraduate political theory classes, for example, the philosophies my classmates and I espoused often varied in accordance with the policy positions we held. I was a libertarian when it came to drug policy, a utilitarian with regard to governmental intervention in the market, a bleeding-heart egalitarian on matters of welfare and health care. Why did I embrace each perspective within its particular context? The honest answer is that my policy preferences — which I had already formed prior to studying political theory in class — inevitably seeped into my philosophical reasoning.
As my classmates and I navigate our first year in law school, I’ve noticed the same pernicious phenomenon of predetermined positions perverting our thinking about the law. I have a conservative friend, for instance, who ferociously denounces any policies that differentiate along racial lines (such as affirmative action). But he is then perfectly willing to accept far more blatant governmental classifications on the basis of gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Can my friend rationalize his legal reasoning with strong jurisprudential arguments? Absolutely, but I find it impossible to believe that his politics are not subtly but surely influencing his legal analysis. Of course, I am guilty of the same sins. I distrust judges when they attempt to meddle in the economic arena, but I gladly rely on them to delineate people’s fundamental rights. And I support states when they craft social policies more progressive than the national norm but scorn their sovereignty when their views strike me as regressive.
To some degree, it is simply human nature to tie the ways we think and reason about the world to our political positions. Parties have every incentive to shift their arguments based on calculations of electoral gain. And people, seeking to avoid cognitive dissonance and to fit themselves snugly into the political spectrum, also have reason to adopt facially inconsistent principles that nevertheless tally with their policy preferences. My objection, then, is not to the jumbled and contradictory views that many of us (myself included) hold. Rather, it is to the primacy of politics over clear thinking, of ends over the reasons for those ends, that taints the thinking of both parties and ordinary people Everywhere we look, politics tends to dictate principle — but this need not be the case, and we should strive to resist the march of partisanship into every uncluttered corner of our minds.
Nicholas Stephanopoulos is a first-year student at Yale Law School.