Sunday, August 02, 2020

On political loyalty

During political campaigns, you see the expression of party loyalties. The way we live our lives online these days, even more during the slow, devastating burn of the pandemic, means that we publish those loyalties more broadly than the short-lived yard sign or the too-long-lived bumper sticker. And, in this era, campaign season is the only season. 

Maybe because of the ubiquity of this political signaling, it seems we identify ourselves to ourselves and others in terms of party loyalty more than we used to. I don’t have proof that this is so, but when I was a young Hoosier, there was something slightly shameful about being heavily invested in a party. I remember my mom deriding another relative for being a “red-hot Republican” with the emphasis on “red-hot”. My grandma used to tell a story about a couple playing cards with (I think) her aunt and uncle during the Great Depression. Her uncle joked that someone ought to “take care” of Roosevelt. The other couple reported him to the government; that led to a fruitless, though frightening, investigation. The point of the story was that it was embarrassing to be more deeply committed to a party than to your friends and neighbors. Loyalty was due to your loved ones and your community and even your country, but not to something like a party. 

There is something suspect and confused in the very idea of party loyalty. I want to be clear that there is nothing wrong with commitment to values and principles and political goals; this is often—depending on the valued and principle and goals—admirable and good. But, values and principles and goals are only incidentally and contingently embodied in political parties. I think that Simone Weil was largely right in On the Abolition of Political Parties to identify the entire purpose of political parties as the gaining and maintenance of power. This means that a party may, at some points, include as a part of its platform some laudatory goal, like prison reform or support for families or the expansion of voting rights or some other policy that you think is right and good. They include it because doing so will mean power. Perhaps this is cynicism, or perhaps it is realistic. 

The history of political parties—not just in this country—is one of changing positions, including central ones. How do you go from the Lost Cause politics of Woodrow Wilson through the Dixiecrats to the embracing of civil rights legislation  among the Democrats? How do you go from the drive to preserve the union through federal power and unease about slavery to Reconstruction to the adoption of the “southern strategy” and the (selective) states’ rights and libertarian positions of the Republicans?  How do parties flip on foreign intervention or trade? How do you get the fluid positions on same-sex marriage or abortion or guns that then calcify into partisan orthodoxies? You might claim that each party has come to realize through time what position its core commitments logically entailed. While there might be a few core beliefs that stand relatively firm, overall that’s too optimistic. 

Party leaders are interested in building coalitions that give them power. This means adopting positions that will allow them to raise money and win elections. They adopt positions that allow them to build coalitions and some of those positions mean shedding other parts of their former coalitions. Partisan politicians mostly follow the trends they predict from the zeitgeist; rarely do they lead. Of course, there are crusading political reformers, but they are usually outside of the mainstream of their parties, if they identify themselves with one at all. Leading is left to others: activists, community leaders, the occasional thinker. The logic of a political party is Darwinian, as read by Nietzsche. That is, the party wants to survive and have power. There’s nothing more.

This is why there is something wrong with the idea of being loyal to a party. Since we’re stuck with parties, we should view them in terms of their utility. Because a party wants to survive, we can try to push it to adopt the positions that we take to be the morally and politically correct ones and, when one will work for more of those than the other, it makes sense to support that party. When it no longer does, it makes sense not to support it. 

Our attitude to a political party ought to mirror a party’s attitude towards its members. That is, we ought to be mercenary: use it when it serves our interest and can be bent to our ends, but abandon when it no longer does. We absolutely ought not to feel a sense of loyalty to it, nor—and this is a more serious problem, perhaps—should we derive our belief about ends from a party. I ought never to believe anything “as a Republican” or “as a Democrat” or “as a Green” or “as a Democratic Socialist”, though it makes a good deal of sense to believe things as a republican or democrat or socialist or communalist or someone who cares about the environment. The latter are identities from which it makes sense to draw substantive conclusions precisely because they are tied up with substantive commitments about the good and ends, but the former are little more than team names. It’s sad when people feel loyal to a team that would gladly abandon their city for more lucrative pastures somewhere else and uses that fact to squeeze concessions from taxpayers. It’s say when people feel loyal to a party that would abandon their interests if it meant more votes. 

Loyalty should be saved for things that have inherent, rather than merely instrumental value: friendships, loving relationships, the communities that nourish us. 

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