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A Weberian Lesson Concerning the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary

Much virtual ink has been spilled in the past two weeks over the increasingly bitter “tone” to the debate between the two candidates for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, and more especially between their advocates, emissaries and supporters. Here on Public Seminar, Jeffrey Goldfarb has weighed in on this phenomenon and its infelicities from both a pragmatic and principled perspective. I have no quarrel with Jeff’s helpful intervention in this discussion, but I do want to shed light on another element of the conversation the past week and a half, which is a true “teaching moment” if ever there was one.

I am thinking of Senator Sanders’s already (in)famous statement—in response to some real baiting and gotcha-style journalism that the mainstream media has been full of in every direction and on every occasion—that “perhaps” Secretary Clinton is “not qualified” to be President of the United States. This “hot topic” arose again, inevitably, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard debate just last night, which I am going to quote from this transcript [with ellipses and other editorial elements eliminated] in what follows. The first “real” question of the debate was to Senator Sanders and was phrased thus: “Senator Sanders, in the last week, you’ve raised questions about Secretary Clinton’s qualifications to be president. You said that something is clearly lacking in terms of her judgment and you accused her of having a credibility gap. So let me ask you, do you believe that Secretary Clinton has the judgment to be president?” What is interesting to me is the way in which the question shifts from “qualification” to “judgment.” I find this phrasing very felicitous, and believe this was Wolf Blitzer’s best contribution to political discourse in a long time. What I believe he has noticed (or maybe he did this without noticing) is that “qualification” can refer to credentials in terms of practical competence or in terms of moral competence. By ending on “judgment”—which was crucial to Sanders’s reply, as we will see in a second—Blitzer has actually clarified the issue at hand in a striking way, as we will see by following the candidates responses.

At bottom, in reply, Sanders wanted to say two things. First he further teases out the two senses of qualification I just mention, rephrasing the question for himself as “Does Secretary Clinton have the experience and the intelligence to be a president?” and answering “Of course she does.” But then, appealing to Blitzer’s formulation, he makes the second point: “But I do question her judgment. I question a judgment which voted for the war in Iraq—the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country, voted for virtually every disastrous trade agreement which cost us millions of decent-paying jobs. And I question her judgment about running super PACs which are collecting tens of millions of dollars from special interests, including $15 million from Wall Street. I don’t believe that that is the kind of judgment we need to be the kind of president we need.” Sanders is effectively saying: “Is Secretary Clinton practically qualified? Obviously. However, is she morally qualified? Maybe not.”

Blitzer then asks Clinton to reply, and after a predictable and perhaps necessary defense of her competence in the first sense—which Sanders had just conceded he never meant to call into question—interestingly chose not to defend her moral competence but rather to move into an attack on Sanders’s practical competence. She says: “But if you go and read, which I hope all of you will before Tuesday, Senator Sanders’ long interview with the New York Daily News talk about judgment and talk about the kinds of problems he had answering questions about even his core issue, breaking up the banks.

When asked, he could not explain how that would be done and when asked about a number of foreign policy issues, he could not answer about Afghanistan, about Israel, about counterterrorism, except to say if he’d had some paper in front of him, maybe he could. I think you need to have the judgment on day one to be both president and commander-in-chief.” Clinton’s point is clear: “I am practically qualified; he, maybe not.”

So, to summarize. What we have seen in this moment of the Navy Yard Debate is two related things. First, we have a crystallization of the central dynamic of the Democratic Presidential primary: Sanders has called into question Clinton’s moral competence; Clinton has called into question Sanders’s practical competence. Voters, in essence, are asked to choose: do you go with Clinton, and get a candidate with incontestable practical competence in exchange for questionable moral competence?

But there is something still more interesting here. Namely, we have been given an unusually thoughtful and viscerally present crystallization of one of the central questions of moral and political philosophy: what, exactly, constitutes “good judgment?” Sanders has indicated that, for him, “good judgment” means something like “always acting on the basis of your most cherished beliefs, be the politics whatever they are” while for Clinton “good judgment” means something like “always acting on the basis of a vision of what is achievable in the here and now and does the most good and/or the least harm.” I want to stress that these are both very sound judgments about the nature of good judgment, but also that they clearly conflict. You can’t believe both of these at the same time, at least not all the time; sometimes, maybe or rather often or even almost always, there will be a conflict in public life between acting on one’s beliefs in full and acting in accordance with practical considerations. The candidates have clearly made their decisions about this, but how might we, ourselves, come to judgment about how to define good judgment in public life?

Well it just so happens that, in my humble opinion, the greatest expression of this dilemma ever given in the entire tradition of political thought we have inherited from the Greeks through the Romans, the volatile reception and reformulation of this tradition in the Christian/Islamic conflicts of the middle ages, and down through the violent conflicts between the early modern monarchies and the modern republican experiment is the central lesson of Weber’s epochal 1919 “Vocation Speech.” It is a lesson that comes directly out of one of the truly great moments of political discourse in our times, a lecture—a (“political”) speech really, and crucially not a “text” not even a “great text”—given by Max Weber to a Student Union in Munich during the heady days of Winter 1919 when it was not yet clear what shape a post-Imperial Germany would take, and when the decision between a politics of moral competence and a politics of practical competence meant something like the decision between making Germany into some picture of the best possible state it could be, with the great likelihood of failure and civil war (siding with moral competence) or making Germany into something decent and hopefully sustainable but clearly morally imperfect (siding with practical competence). (In the event, of course, the end was the greatest catastrophe of political life imaginable; fortunately (perhaps) Weber died the next year long before the Weimar Republic met its doom.)

This way of posing the dilemma makes it pretty clear which side Weber was on, but agree with him or not, it is incumbent on anyone who cares about politics to come to terms with the dilemma and with Weber’s way of putting it. So, please, go read the speech right now if you never have, and remember its context! If you do, you will see that Weber shows us that the politician must always try and always fail to balance practical competence (he calls this “the Ethic of Responsibility”) with moral competence (he calls this “the Ethic of Moral Conviction”). Without the slightest touch of cynicism, and in fact speaking to a group a students who are trying to build a just and representative democracy out of the ruins of the Great War, Weber’s lesson is that it is in fact not possible to balance to moral and practical considerations. Rather one must always err to one side or the other.

Not only in their answers at the key moment in the debate last night, but also throughout this campaign and really throughout their whole lives, the two Democratic candidates have made their positions clear. Clinton favors practical competence, urging voters to choose her on the basis of a shared rational preference for that kind of competence and the kind of judgments it gives rise to: compromises on positions that inevitably shift over time (as your people’s vision changes over time), a life at the very center of governing coalitions, a series of successful contributions to incremental changes. Sanders favors moral competence, urging voters to choose him on the basis of a shared rational preference for that kind of competence and the kind of judgments it gives rise to: uncompromising convictions on positions that remain the same for forty years (as your people’s vision slowly comes to coincide with yours on many points) a life near but always on the periphery of political power, a series of contributions (not always successful) to potential transformational changes.

Now, as Jeff also tried to stress, each of these lives (and these ways of living) is eminently respectable and I hope that we can all step back from the “heat” of the race to acknowledge that. But I want to emphasize something else: there are “pros” and “cons” to each of these stances, but if we learn anything from Weber, it is that one cannot do a “cost-benefit analysis” and then decide. No. First one makes a decision: are my politics fundamentally practical, or are my politics fundamentally moral? Then, having decided, you make your other calculations as best you can, and you lead others in the way most suited to your personality and your skills. Thus, for Weber, a life in politics is not grounded in reason—the decision to be moral or to be practical cannot itself have a rational ground—but it is enacted in and through reason, because our leaders can and must express their decisions rationally and then we must make our choose to follow them rationally.

With this in mind, and like Hamilton, Madison and Jay (authors of the Federalist, which I just had the joy of teaching for about a month earlier this semester), I close with an appeal to the reason of the People of New York; a faculty which I hold in the highest honor and to which I aim to submit every consideration as a thought experiment. My question to the voters of my hometown and my home state (well those who have been registered “Democratic” long enough thanks to New York’s especially unforgiving closed primary system) is Weber’s question. You have before you two professional politicians in the best sense of the word. These are not “career politicians” in the derisive sense of 1990s apathy and anti-politics, but rather two individuals called (angerufen) to a life in the service of the American people as their Beruf (profession/vocation). Each of these candidates has clearly indicated where they stand on the impossible, yet necessary decision that faces someone who will make a life in politics: knowing that both moral and practical competence are required to lead yet impossible to enact to the same degree in each and every action, are you going to err on the side of practical competence or on the side of moral competence? Clinton and Sanders have made their decisions. The time has come to make yours.

Michael Weinman

  • This piece is uncanny, you read my mind, it seems, as I have been
    struggling with the choice. My concern is that I am critical of
    Clinton’s practical competence and Sanders moral competence. Thanks for
    the great contribution.

    • Don Socha

      And it’s just the opposite for me. I’m critical of Clinton’s moral competence and of Sanders’ practical competence.

    • Vince Carducci

      Jeff, That is the dilemma, isn’t? Although I have to say that either choice is better than what is on offer from the other side. As you might imagine, the heart says “moral” and the head says “practical.” You may find this funny, but I have always been kind of an idealist. So I guess that makes my choice obvious and in fact was the way I voted in the Michigan primary.

    • Thanks Jeff. I was trying hard to maintain agnosticism as far as both candidates’ mastery of both competences go. Perhaps in a future post, I could venture to express my actual non-agnosticism on those questions…

      • Please do. If you do, so will I in response, since I think we will then be “fair and balanced.”

  • Don Socha

    After all, it was the excessive ‘practicality’ of Republicans in the state government that was responsible for the Flint water crisis.

    • Thanks Don. But we need to distinguish between partisan/cynical “practicality” and a genuine practical commitment I think. I might disagree with “practical politics” in the second sense, but I respect it. In the former sense it is simply contemptible.

      • Don Socha

        Thank you, Michael. So when there is a problem with ‘practical’ solutions, you don’t see it as due to a lack of concern for balance? I’m playing at seeing the situation as more than an either/or argument. .That’s how a read Weber’s suggestion that he politician must always try and always fail to balance practical with moral competence.

        • Thanks for the additional reply. I do indeed agree both that Weber is attempting to point toward the need for, and the possibility of, finding a balance. At the same time, as Professor Jackson also insisted, there is the “tragic character” of Weber’s position (in the Vocation lecture and elsewhere), which arises from his acknowledgement that “balance” is often impossible and so one must knowingly err one way or the other and he, Weber, will err on the side of practicality–in his sense, which I am calling the “genuine practical commitment” of a, let’s say, basically “decent” political realism.

      • Don Socha


  • ProfPTJ

    Good essay — but I disagree with the reading of Weber’s lecture presented here. Weber presents not a binary opposition between responsibility and ultimate ends, but a three-part distinction: ultimate ends, the pure pursuit of power for its own sake, and — mediating between them in an always-unstable way — the politics of responsibility. (This is a little obscure in Weber’s lecture because he doesn’t give the pure pursuit of power without principle a snappy name, but the whole point of the historical narrative that takes up the bulk of the lecture is precisely to establish that political power per se has its own practical logic, which involves violence.) So the politics of responsibility is not one option among others, but is precisely Weber’s own best definition of what it *means* to have politics as a vocation. One cannot simply choose moral or practical competence and proceed from there, but one cannot (or *should not*, if one wants to be a politician in the vocational sense) ignore either.

    My point is that the politics of responsibility is an intrinsically uncomfortable place to be, because it demands a perpetual recurrence of moments of decision that ultimately satisfy no one and no single coherent standard. Sanders’ questioning of Clinton’s judgment strikes me as an indictment of Clinton’s capacity to be responsible, based on her record; Clinton’s criticism of Sanders strikes me as an indictment of Sanders’ experience such that he doesn’t understand what kind of compromises are required in order to govern responsibly. So this isn’t in my view about practical versus moral competence so much as it is about the uneasy but inevitable co-presence of both registers in two people who are trying to be responsible. The question for the voters is: who do we think is going to be more responsible? Continuing to evaluate either candidate in only one register (practical or moral) is precisely the problem that Weber was trying to move us — and the students in his audience — past. “Practical *or* moral” is too easy, because the answer is always about the inevitable tensions between practical *and* moral.

    • Thank you for the engagement! I agree that “reducing” Weber’s point to “the two ethics” is a simplification (perhaps over-simplification) and I should have called this “a” and not “the” central dilemma of *Vocation*. Absolutely you are right that both ethics themselves are in opposition to two other possible poles for Politics to revolve around: the “administration of society” and “pure power politics.” Both of those “greater evils” are Weber’s real enemy in the talk. And yes he wants to overcome them by insisting on both ethics fused into a responsible (“grown up”) politics. But I still say his answer boils down to favoring practical over moral competence. To really complete the thought I would want to come to terms with Habermas’s reply to Weber on this point.

      • ProfPTJ

        Habermas aside — and that might be engraved on my tombstone one day, since I seem to spend inordinate amounts of time setting Habermas aside 🙂 — I would agree with you that Weber sides with practicality rather than unmitigated idealism, which is entirely appropriate when talking to a group of idealistic students (that’s the “uncomfortable fact” they have to be confronted with, so Weber the teacher is doing his damned duty, as he himself might put it). Idealists with the weapons of the sovereign state to command would cause great harm precisely because they would be able to justify their actions to themselves and others in the name of their transcendent ideals. So I’m with you there. I would still, however, want to stress the ultimately tragic character of Weber’s position, because there is no seamless way to reconcile ethics and practicality — and living in that tension is the “vocation for politics.” I would read both Democratic candidates for president as dwelling in that tension, unlike some of the unreconstructed idealists on the Republican side who lack the “sense of proportion” Weber calls for politicians to have.

        • You’ll have to tell me more about perpetually setting Habermas aside, Professor Jackson (I actually am about to teach his theory of democracy tomorrow in my “Constitutions” class)! But beyond that, I do believe that as Clinton said in her best line of the debate from last Thursday, “We are vehemently agreeing here!” It was my intention–however much I succeeded–precisely to do honor to what you call here “the ultimately tragic character of Weber’s position,” and I couldn’t agree with you more when you speak of “living in that tension” (i.e., in trying and failing “to reconcile ethics and practicality”) as precisely being the “vocation for politics.”

          Now, what was that about Habermas, again? ;o)

          • ProfPTJ

            So there’s a short version of a reply, and a long version. I’m taking a year-long sabbatical next year to write the book explicating the long version, so for the moment, here’s the short one instead 🙂

            tl;dr — most people who read Weber misunderstand his project because they don’t grok ideal-typification and they forget that Weber is operating in a neo-Kantian intellectual context; Habermas is a good Frankfurter in reading Weber as though Weber were interested in something called a general social theory of modernity, but this is a problematic reading. Politics/science/values, as a set of ideal-types, is a division rooted in logic, not in late modern capitalism.

            Elaborating slightly: I would state as a fundamental principle of reading, and of reading social theory in particular, that a good and defensible reading has to take the whole text seriously, and work to incorporate all of it into the reading. When dealing with an author’s whole corpus, one has to read all the things, not just pieces; detaching the parts that one wants to engage from the other parts has to be done very carefully, lest we end up with an imperfect copy (Weber’, or Weber’s lesser-known-cousin Moritz Weber, so to speak) instead of a plausible construal of the whole body of work. (If there are tensions in the work, that has to be an explicit part of the reading too.) The Frankfurt School engagement with Weber, and quite frankly, the engagement of much of sociology with Weber, imagines that he is either a positivist putting forth theoretical descriptions of actual process and objects, or a critic of the contemporary age seeking the root sources of our modern estrangement so it can be addressed and overcome. I think that both of these readings are misleading and incomplete, and both give us something Weber would never countenance, which are debates about whether the theories he puts forth are “correct” or not. Of course they’re not “correct,” they’re ideal-types, which is the thing no one gets.

            See, “theorizing” in the positivist idiom is about grouping things correctly, developing concepts that properly divide up the world in ways that render it amenable to comprehension and control. Theorizing in the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory proper sense is about getting a handle on the fundamental aspects of contemporary life, and contributing to our emancipation from the more nefarious of those aspects. Weber, by contrast, regards “theory” as a tool for explanation, and treats concepts as ideal-types — which means *both* that they are in important ways grounded in our cultural values and lived experiences (so they can’t be mere typologies that get at the essence of things; that notion is ruled out by the necessarily value-laden character of ideal-types) *and* that they are never available to serve as the basis for evaluative judgments. This is clearest in the 1904 essay on “objectivity” but it’s elsewhere in Weber’s writings too, and without appreciating this position, it’s difficult if not impossible to make sense of the argument in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, particularly Weber’s ending remark about not replacing a one-sided materialism with a one-sided idealism.

            So: Weber’s concepts are ideal-typical, and actuality is more messy and more complicated than any set of ideal-types. Explanation largely consists of using ideal-types to examine single cases to see what makes them unique; ideal-types are a baseline for that process, and are especially helpful when a situation is analyzed as consisting of tensions *between* different ideal-typical notions…precisely what Weber is doing in the “vocation” lectures. So “science” in one lecture emerges as a tension between the insistence on logical purity and internal coherence, and the demand for “progress” which ensures that scientific results will inevitably be overturned and superseded; the vocation for science — “to serve only the thing” — serves to propel people into that gap and keep them there. In the “politics” lecture, the ideal-types are the pure pursuit of power without principle (which Weber illustrates as operative throughout the history of the European sovereign state in particular) and the “politics of ultimate ends” that his idealistic student audience was clamoring for. The “vocation of politics,” the politics of responsibility, means living in that tension; choosing one *or* the other means losing the vocation.

            So: in some ways we are “vehemently agreeing,” but in others we are not. I buy your depiction of the Clinton/Sanders distinction as involving different mixes of practical and moral competences, but I disagree that this is an opposition that Weber would regard as the same as that between the politics of ultimate ends and the politics of responsibility. They’re both responsible in different ways, and the persistence of those differences is perpetual since there’s no way to reconcile them under the heading of one unified notion of reason. Which is what Habermas wants to do, of course, through the turn to communicative action. If the distinctions Weber were drawing were empirical historical products, Habermas’ engagement might make sense, but since they aren’t, it doesn’t. Which is not to say that Habermas is *wrong*, but to say that Habermas’ reading of Weber is *ultimately not sustainable*. And that’s why I avoid Habermas when talking about Weber 🙂

            I won’t avoid Habermas in the book, of course. Nor will I avoid Parsons, whose reading of Weber is even more bizarre (since he thinks Weber is an individualist, a reading that makes the whole thrust of The Protestant Ethic — which is the formation of a notion of the autonomous individual, and a market society composed of such individuals, in the first place — incomprehensible).

          • Dear Professor Jackson:

            Sign me up for an advance copy of that book please! It seems to me–to the extent that I have understood the “short version”–that you are trying to say something that has been bothering me since I took a seminar with Dick Bernstein on (especially) volume 1 of TCA back in Autumn 2002. In particular, your claim: “Politics/science/values, as a set of ideal-types, is a division rooted in logic, not in late modern capitalism” is something that I can recall coming back to time and again in that seminar, and in my paper (my last seminar paper as a grad student, hence one I remember with an excessive nostalgic fondness!) for that seminar.

            If you’d be open to sharing any drafts as they come along, I would most welcome the opportunity to reflect on them. Otherwise, I will keep my eyes pealed for the book that this sabbatical will hopefully yield. (I, meanwhile, am hoping to be at work on a volume that explores “reason and the rationalization of society” from Husserl’s version of a reply to these questions about “how much has to do with late capitalism and how much with the very nature of experience.” It seems to me that I (with some version Husserl) and you (with some version [the correct one?] of Weber) are ultimately on the same side.

  • Old Prospector

    Id = Trump
    Ego = Clinton
    Superego = Sanders

    • I think that understates Trump’s fundamentally strategic attitude and Sanders’s “politics of the gut.”

  • Libby Newman

    I love this, Michael! And my students are reading it as part of their final.

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