Political Integrity and Dirty Hands: Compromise and the Ambiguities of Betrayal
The claim that democratic politics is the art of compromise is a platitude but we seem allergic to compromise in politics when it happens. This essay explores this paradox. Taking my cue from Machiavelli’s claim that there exists a rift between a morally admirable and a virtuous political life, I argue that: (1) a ‘compromising disposition’ is an ambiguous virtue—something which is politically expedient but not necessarily morally admirable; (2) whilst uncongenial to moral integrity, a ‘compromising disposition’ constitutes an essential aspect of political integrity. In so doing, I question certain moralistic assumptions which fuel contemporary vilifications of compromise—that, in theory, democratic politics should be inhospitable to compromise and that political integrity should be akin to moral integrity—and which are shared by Walzer’s Dirty Hands thesis which professes to be sensitive to the realities of politics. These assumptions displace the complex realities of politics and misconstrue the standards of political excellence; they unsatisfactorily idealize political integrity and the messy context in which democratic politicians operate—a context characterized by a plurality of incompatible traditions, each with its own values and principles. Whilst commitment to a set of principles stemming from one’s tradition or pre-election promises implies commitment to realize these, leading a virtuous political life amidst such a grubby domain often requires abandoning some of these. An innocent, all-or-nothing pursuit of one’s principles in politics might prompt political disaster or defeat: an uncompromising disposition entails the entire abandonment of any hope of realizing all of those principles.