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Ends and Means

My post earlier today about Mitch McConnell and Rick Santorum, and the cash nexus that seems to link conservative ideology to partisan Republican power, probably requires an additonal comment. When you look at guys like DeLay and Santorum, the charitable interpretation of their behavior is that they sincerely believe American politics is a battle between good and evil, civilization and barbarism, the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death, or the "real America" and the not-so American America, to cite several Manichean formulations common in conservative circles. That leads them to believe they are morally compelled to fight for partisan political power, and then to descend further down that slippery slope to the belief that practices clearly unethical in daily life are actually ethical in this titantic struggle. This is standard "ends justifies the means" reasoning, as any student of history can tell you. But history also shows that in the van of every movement of political, religious, or cultural extremism, there are those who invert the equation, using the righteous ends to pursue the morally bankrupt means. The examples are far too numerous to list, but they range from the Spanish Catholics who used the Inquisition to dispossess their business rivals on trumped-up heresy charges to the English Protestants who exploited the Reformation's horror of Masses for the Dead to seize monastic lands; from the U.S. carpetbaggers who joined the fight against the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan to obtain military backing for their own political and economic avarice, to the kleptocrats who used the communist ideology of equality to build a new privileged class of party bureaucrats throughout the Soviet Bloc. It goes on and on. No, I'm not comparing Tom DeLay or Rick Santorum to any of these great villains of the past, and I'm fully aware that there are plenty of people in the Democratic Party who would behave the same way if given the opportunity. But the salient point is that any effort to make the "ends justify the means" tends to devolve into the means as an end in themselves, over and over again, thoughout human history. Principled conservatives need to ask themselves if their movement is currently endangered by this moral hazard, and police their ranks accordingly. A good start would be to stop applauding, and begin questioning, those political leaders most eager to justify the lowest tactics by the highest ideals.