The Spitzer Scandal: Tragedy and Prudence in the Age of the Technocrat

Ivan Kenneally

March 1, 2008

Much of the bottomless coverage of Eliot Spitzer’s public disgrace has insisted on transforming the lurid affair into a case study in political hubris; in this narrative, the tragic protagonist’s intestinal flaw brings about a shocking but somewhat predictable demise. The key to this gossamer version of Sophoclean theater is the horseshoe shape of Spitzer’s professional trajectory—his triumphant ascendancy to the Governorship of New York is only eclipsed by the shock and horror of his descent, ostensibly undone by an implacable ambition transformed into arrogance. We are all left to idly wonder along with Spitzer, when the detritus of the scandal finally clears, what could have been if only he could have chastened hi s own darker impulses. The grand cathartic conclusion is collectively shared by the people of New York, who react with pity and fear to the spectacle of a malformed greatness turned against itself.

However, as Aristotle famously observes, the drama of tragedy requires real greatness and not merely craven self-aggrandizement; at best, Spitzer was infected with a puerile intemperance, and at worst, he was a kind of political thug. His fall was long and hard when judged by the conventional benchmarks of success and failure but his soul remained small from beginning to end. Much of the distance between the heights and depths of his political career is an illusion generated by his own inveterate hypocrisy: he advertised himself as an exemplar of righteousness amidst entrenched political corruption and so his current ignominy seems stark in comparison to his original claims to purity. Everyone now knows, and most have always known, that his career was always dogged by suspicions and allegations of corner cutting, political intimidation, and bald faced gangsterism. The media’s interpretation of Spitzer’s fall from grace can’t simply be explained by their gullibility in the face of spin, however much allegiance might be generated by their ideological kinship with his political objectives. Ultimately, their stubbornly blinkered assessment has to do with being incapable of distinguishing greatness from personal ambition, of mistaking the anger that comes with an immoderate sense of entitlement for manliness, and for confusing an impenetrable dogmatism for public spiritedness. In short, they conflate the great man with the alpha male or the overachiever whose zeal is not only liberated from personal restraint but from any genuine sense of transcendent obligation; at best, Spitzer will be remembered for his political irrepressibility, for being a self styled “steamroller”, but no one will recall in the service of what precisely, or to what cause he dedicated his considerable energies.

In short, we live in a time where both greatness and tragedy are increasingly difficult to understand and appreciate. Never before has the term “tragic” been used so promiscuously to describe every misfortune or hardship, however ordinary. It would be difficult to imagine Aeschylus writing a tragedy about a blustery technocrat brought down by his indiscretions with a prostitute although one could imagine Aristophanes writing a comedy about it. Part of the meaning of this is that the egalitarian distribution of greatness—the secrets of leadership are now laid bare for everyone in popular business manuals and self- help books—translates into the leveling of the dimensions of the tragic as well; certainly no one today wants to see their own trials in comic terms (although, through the prism of the sitcom or romantic comedy, we enjoy seeing the tribulations of others this way). If everyone can be a protagonist in their own tragic saga, the tragic is the personal and the theatre of tragic politics is no more than the personal writ large; the likes of a Spitzer can’t be categorically distinguished by his greatness since greatness itself has lost its categorical distinctness. Spitzer is the classic overachiever but there is a kind of genealogical line that runs from the underachiever to the overachiever—it’s not a difference in kind. We can all be overachievers if we just “applied ourselves more,” as any high school guidance counselor would advise us.

Still, this account is not yet adequate because Spitzer is more than merely an overachiever—he’s the practitioner of the new political science; in other words, he’s a technocrat. Maybe even more important to understanding the Spitzer debacle than the collapsing of the distinction between the tragic and the comic in modern politics is the substitution of the technocrat for the statesman. As the French philosopher Chantel Delsol has explained, the statesman as classically understood is the bearer of prudence—he understands the insuperable limits of politics and human nature, chooses the wisest practical course available among putative candidates, and accepts the risks involved in any political decision given the necessary uncertainty inherent at the core of all human affairs. The technocrat, however, does not need prudence because he is armed with science; he does not need deep reflection on long political experience to understand human nature since the human being is one natural object among many and just as susceptible to reliable prediction. The risk and uncertainty previously understood as a permanent feature of human affairs is really a contingent defect of a pre-scientific politics. The art of prudence is eventually replaced by the science of administrative competence. No man of prudence, even after the most cursory experience with the infamously dysfunctional Albany bureaucracy, could confidently declare that “We will turn that world upside down. We are absolutely going to sweep it out.”

More than 150 years ago, Tocqueville predicted our rampant egalitarian impulses might eventually produce a soft, administrative despotism that increasingly usurped the freedom and responsibility of a citizenry ready to embrace a benign paternalism. What will this administrative despot be like? How will we know him when we see him? The traditional tyrant is easy enough to discern since his despotism is not soft but unwieldy and hard; he rules with a hammer versus bar graphs. Spitzer’s refusal to compromise is more than just stubborn recalcitrance—it’s the sum result of the discomfiting logic of technocratic competence; scientific certainly will brook no compromises with its absolute, empirical truths. Technocratic competence is inconsistent with participatory democracy not merely because it closes off political deliberation to the non-specialist but also because its passion for certainty bristles at the needlessness of public debate. For those blessed with programmatic certitude, all that is left of public deliberation is the ad hominem assassination of their benighted enemies. Oddly enough, technocratic politics can be a very personal affair. Spitzer’s reputation for being a “Crusader,” or the “Sheriff of Wall Street” was largely generated by those who had likewise tired of public debate and impatiently wanted their interests prioritized over others. They foresaw an end to politics not because of a cessation of interest but because of the triumph of their own.

Despite its openly populist tendencies, the rise of technocracy is hostile to the prudence and good sense of the common man. Moreover, despite his incapacity to appreciate the greatness of the statesman, the technocrat is vulnerable to becoming intoxicated by his own superior wisdom, as confirmed by statistical science. Unlike in aristocracy, the technocrat’s claim to rule is not based on questionable claims regarding excellence or tradition; the technocrat’s superiority is evidenced by reason itself. It seems quite plausible that a degenerate variety of magnanimity, contemptuous of the people and quick to anger, would be the deformed progeny of technocratic leadership. The preoccupation with technocratic competence is not only insensitive to the vagaries of political life but tone deaf to moral aspiration as well; following the revelation of his indiscretions, Spitzer repeatedly and clumsily tried to distinguish between the transgressions of his “private” life and the obligations attached to his public office. The technocrat is quick to advocate a science of administrative means but has no recourse to a comparable science of ends; the distinction between scientific fact and subjective value drains the meaningfulness of moral discourse from public life. Interestingly enough, the technocrat is even more immoderate and peculiarly self-righteous when discussing moral ends precisely because, in the absence of rational demonstration, frustration easily gives way to moral indignation. The media’s fascination with Spitzer’s potential for greatness speaks to a similar myopia, for he had not yet learned to be decent, to be good.

The motto and mantra of Spitzer’s campaign for governor was “Everything changes on day one.” So seductive is this marriage of politics and instant gratification that The New Republic suggested “Spitzerism” might be the new face of the Democratic Party. More than anything, this platitude was a hyperbolic advertisement of his own imprudence, of his utter failure to grasp the nature of political things, and a harbinger of likely disappointment. Spitzer’s demise is more comic than tragic, if the inability to appreciate the tragic or immutable character of human nature in the absence of prudence can be called comic. Cicero once famously proclaimed that it was often the nature of politics to defeat reason but he never said it was the nature of politics to defeat prudence. If there is any lesson Spitzer’s successor and the people of New York should learn through collective catharsis, it might be this one.

Ivan Kenneally is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. He has published on a wide range of subjects in political philosophy in The New Atlantis, Perspectives on Political Science, and Society.