A Philosopher's Blog

The DNC & Fairness

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 29, 2016

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont

Thanks to WikiLeaks (and possibly Russia) the Democratic National Committee’s formerly secret emails are now publicly available. As should surprise no one, the emails show that the DNC looked down on Sanders and suggest that the leadership unfairly favored Hillary Clinton. The main fallout from the leak has been the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Shultz. Shultz, who represents my adopted state of Florida, is also facing a challenger to her position—a challenger endorsed by Bernie Sanders. These revelations do raise some important concerns.

While the Democratic and Republican parties are often wrongly seen as being part of the government, they are private organizations. As such, they operate by their own rules. They are also, obviously, political parties and that means that political dealing is what they do. As such, it could be argued that the partisanship and mockery of the DNC, though certainly worthy of condemnation, are well within the bounds of legitimate behavior for such an entity. After all, most of the Republican party leadership was vehemently opposed to Trump and there was extensive maneuvering to stop Trump. It is, however, to the credit of the Republicans that they conducted their opposition in the open and to Trump’s face rather than via electronic whispering in the digital shadows.

While the DNC did not do anything illegal (as far as is known now), the emails do indicate behavior that should be morally condemned. This, of course, rests on the assumption that the party machinery of the DNC should remain professional and neutral during the primary season. This is, in turn, based on the assumption that the primary process should (as Trump and Bernie both contended) be democratic and based on majority rule in selecting the candidate.

This view can be countered by arguing that the DNC (and the RNC) has purpose other than ensuring majority rule. One might be to select the candidate that has the best chance of winning, regardless of how the people vote. Another might be to select the candidate that matches the goals of the party elite. There are, of course, other possibilities.

My view, which could be quite wrong, is that the DNC and RNC should serve as neutral organizers for the decision making process on the part of the voters. That is, they should (in this very specific context) function in a way analogous to the state run election process and ensure a fair and accurate vote. This is the approach that most matches the democratic ideal.

The emails seem to indicate that the DNC did not take a neutral stance. However, it is not clear if this expressed bias had a significant impact on the outcome. That is, that Sanders would have been the candidate but for the shenanigans of the DNC. On the one hand, it can be argued that Hillary beat Bernie by such a wide margin that the alleged machinations of the DNC were not significant. On the other hand, it could be argued that Bernie was close enough to Hillary that he could have won but for these alleged machinations. If the DNC’s bias did keep Bernie from the nomination, then it could be argued that they interfered with the will of the people, thus potentially making Hillary an illegitimate candidate. This could be countered by arguing that even if the DNC sided with Hillary, the voters still picked her—thus making her legitimate, albeit a bit shady.

Even if the DNC’s alleged bias did not change the outcome (that is, Hillary would have been nominated under the auspices of a neutral DNC), such bias is still problematic. This can be illustrated by using two analogies. First, imagine a hiring committee that has been tasked with selecting a philosophy professor. Even if a biased committee selects the same candidate that a neutral committee would have selected, professional ethics requires that the committee be neutral. Second, consider a football game. Even if biased refereeing still results in a victory by the team that would have won under neutral refereeing, the bias on the part of the referees would still be morally unacceptable.

These analogies can certainly be countered—after all, hiring committees and referees are supposed to be neutral parties while the DNC can be regarded as an interested participant in the process (this takes the matter back to the purpose of the DNC in regards to primaries). If the DNC is looked at as being analogous to a coach rather than a referee, its job would be to get the best players in the game to go up against the opposing team rather than being concerned with neutrality and fairness. So, it comes down to the proper purpose of the DNC (and RNC).

As a closing point, the relevant people in DNC made two classic mistakes. The first was engaging in what seems to be reprehensible and unprofessional behavior. This is a moral flaw. The second was to engage in this behavior via email. This is a flaw in intelligence: using email is like sending a postcard—whatever is on it can be read. Also, they should have known that any target worth hacking will be hacked. If one wants to be shady and smart, then do not write down the evil plans. Better yet, don’t be shady.


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8 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on July 29, 2016 at 9:11 am

    Neutrality is a myth.

    Why do people suspect Russia? when everyone knows the NSA has everyone’s emails?

    NSA Whistle-Blower Tells All: The Program | Op-Docs | The New York Times https://youtu.be/r9-3K3rkPRE

    Clintonites on message: Vote for Trump, and you get Putin http://mondoweiss.net/2016/07/beltway-putins-destroy/

    Reality Check: Why #DNCLeak Much Bigger Than Just Bernie Sanders https://youtu.be/ZoAJtLty0ow

  2. TJB said, on July 29, 2016 at 9:46 am

    Feel the Bern.

  3. WTP said, on July 29, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    Insofar as a political party burns resources and projects and/or plays along with the illusion that the voting in these primaries serves the purpose of selecting a candidate, they are being fraudulent when they stick their thumb on the scales behind the scenes, change the rules post facto, or otherwise threaten to override the decisions of millions of voters who turned out to vote. Not to mention the thousands of poll workers who volunteer their services to run what may be spurious elections.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 29, 2016 at 3:20 pm

      Good point-it is an insult to those who devote so much time and effort and a waste of resources. If it is rigged, they might as well save everyone a lot of trouble and just announce the anointed one. Or, better yet, have a fair contest.

      • David Halbstein said, on July 29, 2016 at 5:24 pm

        HIllary Clinton was announced as “the anointed one” as far back as the 2008 DNC; there was never any question in anyone’s mind that it would be her in 2016.

  4. Anonymous said, on July 29, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    Whether or not the machinations of the DNC had any effect on the outcome is irrelevant. It was morally and ethically reprehensible, and knowing how Hillary Clinton plays hardball politically it is a wonder to me why she is not being implicated in this affair, but that’s a different topic altogether. It is also surprising to me that the DNC will point to the ease with which the Russians may have been able to hack the DNC unsecure servers, yet that possibility is not even considered when it comes to Hillary’s own emails. Again, it’s a topic for a different discussion.

    With regard to the behavior of the DNC, a fitting analogy might be the current scandal regarding doping in the Olympics – it is against the rules, it is not tolerated, and anyone who engages in it, regardless of whether they win or lose, is subject to disqualification. Perhaps, as you point out, no laws were broken – but if it were really OK, then there would have been no reason for Wasserman-Schultz to resign. Perhaps there should be some laws or rules or even a code of conduct enforced for the next time around. “If men were angels” James Madison once wrote …

    A very similar reprehensible act was that of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who spoke out against Donald Trump. Once again, I will remind anyone reading this that I am no apologist for Trump, but her comments are totally unacceptable given her position.

    Many years ago, I went to a student-debate club meeting in NJ where the keynote address was delivered by Chris Christie, then a federal prosecutor. I was very impressed with him then, because even though he had been appointed by George W. Bush, and even though the state at the time was embroiled in one of the nastiest races for governor (Corzine vs Forrester), Christie flatly refused to comment on the race, on Bush, on politics in general, despite being asked several pointed questions during the Q&A. As a federal prosecutor, it was his job to remain publicly neutral, which he did well.

    I knew another man, a federal judge, with whom I often sat on my commute to NYC on the ferry from NJ. Even though he, too, had been appointed by Bush, and even though at that time we were embroiled in a very nasty presidential primary (2008), he, too, remained publicly and even semi-privately neutral on all issues of politics. This is absolutely as it should be, and the reason our symbol of our justice system wears a blindfold.

    Ruth Bader Ginsberg should be censured heavily for the comments she made. In her position, with her profile and with the judicial blindfold she is supposed to wear, she exposed herself as being politically biased.

    I realize this is off topic, but it speaks to the level of incompetence and corruption we have grown to accept in our country, and the degree to which we are willing to compromise our ideals and the ideals upon which this country was founded in order for us or those we support to score political points.

    Your comment about the use of email being a mistake is surprising – it is tantamount to the stories we hear of dumb criminals writing their demand-notes to bank tellers on their own personal stationary. The implication is that the rule should not be “don’t do it”, but “don’t get caught”.

    Today we have emails and erasures and hackers, in 1972 we had audio tape and inadvertent erasure. Stupid is stupid, corrupt is corrupt, and criminal is criminal – regardless of your political stripe.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 29, 2016 at 3:19 pm

      Excellent points.

      Like you, I think that professional neutrality and objectivity are critical. This view comes from my experiences in sports and academics-for the institutions to work, there must be trust and the only people worthy of trust are those who can be fair, neutral and objective.

      My remark about the email was a bit sarcastic-doing misdeeds is bad, leaving clear traces is stupid. So, they were bad and stupid. So, the rule of ethics is “don’t do it” while the rule of pragmatics is “don’t get caught.” Following the rule of pragmatics is the road to ruin.

    • David Halbstein said, on August 3, 2016 at 7:59 am

      as a followup to the post above, it is very disappointing, but typical, that now there is a lot of finger-pointing at the Russians for hacking into the DNC servers. What would anyone expect? Do we really believe that there is not deep cyber espionage happening all over the world? Of COURSE they spy on us. Of COURSE they hack our servers wherever and whenever they can. It reminds me of the oft-quoted “Parable of the Snake”.

      I suppose that there are some foreign policy protocols that we must follow when we discover a cyber attack like this, including feigning shock and surprise – but that’s only a small part of the issue.

      While clearly we do not like being spied upon, nor do we like to have our process compromised by outsiders, look how effectively this finger-pointing is deflecting attention from the behavior we CAN and SHOULD control – the unethical if not criminal actions of the DNC, compromising our process from within.

      It underscores what I said at the end of my post above – the rule is not, “Don’t do it”, but “Don’t get caught”. As a corollary to that rule, you might say, “If you DO get caught, try to blame the one who caught you”.

      I guess if we can work ourselves into a lather about the cyber-espionage, we will forget about the content they exposed.

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