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Jan 15, 2014
Gov. Chris Christie says he didn’t know that his top aides closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge just because the mayor of Fort Lee refused to endorse Christie. I don’t know whether Gov. Christie really didn’t know about this, but it’s pretty outrageous if he did know and almost as embarrassing if he didn’t. Who’s in charge in the New Jersey State House anyway? Neither do I know whether President Obama didn’t know that his own Justice Department was delivering weapons to Mexican drug gangs or that his own National Security Agency was spying on the German Chancellor or that the ObamaCare website was as seaworthy as a tea strainer on the day he launched it. I prefer to believe that he is lying because if he is not, then no one is in charge at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
What I do know is that most folks will not find the two pleas of ignorance equally convincing or the two sets of transgressions equally offensive. Context colors content in most human affairs, and in politics the context is dominated by the division between friends and enemies. The President’s supporters will forgive him anything; his opponents will forgive him for little or nothing. If Gov. Christie survives this scandal and goes on to become a serious contender for the White House, the same will hold true.
I also know something about how these political judgments are made and maintained. Not long ago, almost all social scientists believed that our opinions were shaped entirely by our environments. If one person were conservative and religious while another was liberal and agnostic, it would be because of the family, neighbors and schools surrounding that person. In recent decades, evidence for genetic influences has mounted. While party affiliation seems to depend on how your friends and family vote, partisan intensity is heavily influenced by biological inheritance. Likewise, on a range of issues such as gay marriage or the death penalty, inclinations seem to be shared more by identical twins than by fraternal twins or other siblings. This doesn’t mean that genes determine our opinions or our personalities; it just means that genes have a lot of influence over them.
The tendency of humans to come together or divide against one another is a characteristic of our species going back to the ancestors that we share with chimpanzees. As Aristotle said, we are political animals. As Darwinian research has shown, we have been political animals for millions of years.
We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for being partisan in our politics. It is deeply rooted in our species. For that very reason, we should take care to preserve institutions and cultural devices that temper our partisanship. Both President Obama and Gov. Christie have sought refuge in the idea that they are not responsible for what they didn’t know about. This is entirely wrongheaded. It invites one side to buy into the excuses and the other to buy out.
We ought to agree that it doesn’t matter whether they knew or not. The federal executive branch is vast, but the President is responsible for all of it. Gov. Christie presides over a somewhat smaller array of bodies in motion. He is no less responsible for his own administration. Institutional responsibility is a way of tempering partisanship. We have let it wilt. It is time to firm it up.
It is not enough for an officer of government to say, “I take responsibility.” He or she must accept some consequences. Gov. Christie at least took a step in that direction by firing his deputy chief of staff and his campaign manager for doing the thing that he says he didn’t know about. I would say that this is more than the President has done to follow up his own embarrassing lapses in knowledge. Or at least that is what I would say were I not above partisanship.
Editor's Note: Ken Blanchard is our political columnist from the right. For a left-wing perspective on politics, please look for columns by Cory Heidelberger every other Wednesday on this site.