It’s no surprise, but Eric Holder is poised to return to Covington & Burling, the corporate law firm at which he was employed between being Deputy Attorney General in the Clinton administration and Attorney General in the Obama administration. In a case of a well-oiled revolving door, Holder, as Deputy Attorney General, wrote an influential memo arguing that prosecutors must consider the harm that could be done to employees and the relevant industry by seeking criminal charges against corporations or their executives. Having shown his allegiances, after serving under Clinton, Holder moved to Covington and Burling, a firm that wrote legal justifications for MERs (Mortgage Electronic Registry systems), the technological leap that allowed Wall-Street traders to trade mortgage-backed securities lightening quick, and drove the mortgage securitization that in turn drove subprime lending and the housing bubble. As Attorney General, Holder infamously said that Wall Street was too big to jail, manifesting the ideals of the memo he wrote as Deputy. Rather than charge executives or traders with criminal offenses with the strong evidence of securities fraud, Holder oversaw the reception of billions from the banksters in settlements of civil cases. One might wonder if these large settlements where punishments or a thinly veiled purchasing of political good will.
This does nothing to discount the good work Holder did in beginning to address the racial disparities in policing in America, and this point is important in its implications for political psychology. It might be argued that, given the strong evidence of Holder’s concern for racial inequality, and the degree to which the banking crisis and bank bailout exacerbated wealth inequality and thereby racial inequities, surely Holder wasn’t knowingly contributing to the abilities of bankers to privatize profits and publicize losses. This optimistic argument misses a point I made in my recent discussion of President Obama and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Washington is pulled by many forces, be they social or economic, and so we cannot expect any person or institution to consistently act in the interest of a group. The President argued that with how much he’d done for the middle class, it was clear that he wouldn’t support TPP if it weren’t good for middle class economics. The President has done things that are good for the middle class (most recently, working to increase the number of workers who qualify for overtime pay). But with so many forces pulling on him it is not rational to expect that the pull that guides his most recent policy endeavor is the force ‘benefitting the middle class’. This point seems obvious, as it is inevitable part of there being a diversity of interests, but it is worth noting given the commonality of the “consistent interests” argument. We want to see our politicians as politically consistent, and politicians appeal to this aspect of our political psychology. We are easily duped by them because of our projecting onto them our expectations for their rational choices as being bound by consistency, when in reality their rational choices are not bound at all by what would consistently be good for us, but by what would be good for the entity or group with the strongest influence at that moment. This is the asymmetry of political contact.
The upshot of not having to rationalize bad policy decisions as somehow being consistent with other policy values is that we can criticize policy makers when they are wrong and encourage them when they are right without having to somehow convince ourselves that the seeds of our political destruction are somehow in our own values. Acknowledging this point would go a long ways to combating voter apathy, as it would lessen the depressing thought that one’s own values go against your own interests. What reason is there for voting if you don’t agree with the values of one party, and the party that champions your values frequently maintains that those values entail policies that harm you? That your party represents different value sets depending on the most powerful force of the day is depressing, but I submit that this it is less depressing, more likely to cause political action, and less conducive to low voter turnout, than the belief that one’s values entail policy that is not in one’s interests. With democracy so under attack, we must take any and all steps, such as educating on political psychology, that might revitalize democracy in America.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that of course Holder should not be prohibited from returning to his old firm. It is just merely deeply depressing that he will not use his political capital and clout to continue fighting for reform of the criminal-justice system, but will instead defend corporations and banks. This says a lot about the state of our society. After serving as the nation’s highest ranking law officer, he has decided to defend corporations and institutions of power from natural persons, rather than defend natural persons from corporations and institutions of power. Corporations and institutions are seizing power and gaining political rights in ways that, in a zero-sum game, reduce the power and political rights of natural persons.