"Indeed" Indeed.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Glenn Reynolds expresses his hearty agreement with a William Kristol editiorial that attacks conservative (and presumably all non-leftist) commentators for their justifiable disillusionment with this year's Republican field as follows:

INDEED: "You fight an election with the politicians you have."
Aside from its appropriateness to the holiday, I find the following excerpt from "Talk about Political Party" written in 1842 by abolitionist Lydia Maria Child to be a good launching point for a reply:
A.But you advise people not to vote for pro-slavery candidates, and not to join the liberty party; if this isn't non-resistance in politics, I don't know what is.

B. The difficulty in your mind arises, I think, from want of faith in the efficiency of moral influence. You cannot see that you act on politics at all, unless you join the caucus, and assist in electioneering for certain individuals; whereas you may, in point of fact, refuse co-operation, and thereby exert a tenfold influence on the destiny of parties. In Massachusetts, for instance, before the formation of a distinct abolition political party, both parties were afraid of the abolitionists; both wanted their votes; and therefore members of both parties in the legislature were disposed to grant their requests. All, who take note of such things, can remember how the legislature seemed to be abolitionized, as it were, by miracle. "The anti-slavery folks are coming strong this session," said a member to a leading democrat; "they want a hearing on five or six subjects at least." "Give 'em all they ask?" replied the leader; "we can't afford to offend them." When a similar remark was made to a whig leader, the same session, his answer was, "Concede everything; it wont do to throw them into the arms of the democrats." Now [that] there is a third party in Massachusetts, the two great parties have much less motive to please the abolitionists. Last year, the legislature of that State seemed to have gone back on anti-slavery, as fast as it once went forward. In Vermont, the system of refusing co-operation produced the effect of inducing both whigs and democrats to put up an abolition candidate, in order to secure the abolition votes; neither party was willing to give its opponent the advantage that might be gained by pleasing this troublesome class. Had we never turned aside from this plan, I believe the political influence of anti-slavery would have been an hundred fold greater than it now is. [Antislavery Political Writings, 1833-1860: A Reader, edited by C. Bradley Thompson, pp. 99-100, bold added]
Child goes on to elaborate more on how the formation of an anti-slavery political party actually hindered the cause of the abolitionists and how it did so, stating at one point that, "Moral influence dies under party action," and noting that on top of moral principles being vitiated by political maneuvering within a party, the party itself ends up depriving its cause of allies.
[B]y what superior magic does the "liberty party" expect to keep its allies more closely rallied around her, in time of tempting emergency?Will the two-thirds abolitionized democrat, who has joined them to defeat a whig, stand by them when his vote is greatly needed to secure a triumph to his own party, at the polls? Will the half-abolitionized whig, who has been drawn into their ranks, pass safe though the fire of a similar temptaion? I trow not. (102)
How does this bear on the problem of a Republican field which is wholly unacceptable to the advocate of individual rights? In two ways.

First, those who favor individual rights and are able to see that the Libertarian party has already lost whatever better influence it might have had -- and so ally themselves with the Republicans -- are doing worse than making the mistake of joining the Libertarian Party. They are allowing themselves to see their values compromised by antithetical religious values when they are not being completely taken for granted and ignored by the Republican Party. And the Democrats write them off altogether. (The same diminution of political influence, incidentally, happens to blacks, because they bloc-vote for Democrats.)

Second, note that Child is speaking of advancing her goal, the abolition of slavery, precisely through "the politicians she has", as Kristol might put it. The genius of founding a nation of "laws, and not men" lies in the truth that the more constrained by the law our public officials are, the less able they are to victimize the people through their moral flaws and personal weaknesses. Similarly, the genius of not pledging one's support to a politician whose goals are at major odds with your own by joining his party, is that it makes possible a politics of "principles, and not men", as it were, when the "men" aren't principled. This is because most politicians by nature value power, which they know they need your vote to obtain. The moment you pledge your support to the man, you have lost whatever measure of power you once had to cause him to act to further goals in accordance with your principles.

Where would we be today if, instead of principled abolitionists like Lydia Maria Child, we had the likes of William Kristol telling everyone to pick a party, accept a candidate, and shut up their nit-picking about slavery already?

-- CAV

8 comments:

Jim May said...

Good work Gus, your last few posts are some of your best. I'd like to know if Reynolds has a rebuttal to this one....

Hmm. I checked, and he doesn't (did anyone email this to him?); unfortunately he's been rather infatuated with Bill Quick and links him instead.

But I have to give Reynolds credit for putting his finger on a related, important truth:

"if you want to make things better, party politics is probably not your best focus. Politicians are weathervanes, and the winds they respond to come mostly from forces in the culture and the media. If you want to turn them around, work on that. Change the culture and the politics will follow. Leave the culture to Oprah, Olbermann, and worse, and you won't accomplish much through politics over the long run."

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Jim! I am not always the best at figuring out whether I am communicating effectively, so I did wonder.

But no, I hadn't emailed this to him and, although I have seen him express disdain for "first principles", that quote shows that he has more on the ball than I thought.

Rational Jenn said...

Very thought-provoking post and spot on, too! This issue has been discussed recently among some of my friends and I'm going to forward this article on to them. Thanks.

Gus Van Horn said...

Glad I could help!

Jim May said...

It suddenly occurred to me this afternoon: If forming our own party would slow down our cause, then we ought to encourage the religionists to do it. They were rattling their sabers by threatening to do that a year ago -- we need to call them on it; don't let the door hit them in the ass on the way out!

Why would this be good in the long run? If we apply the ideas in Gus' post here, it matters who ends up in control of the non-ideological party. If the religionists walked out to form their own party, that party would be an explicitly ideological one, like the Libertarians. That sharply limits their ability to pick up non-religious votes. In the meantime, it would be a lot easier for the newly secularized Republicans to pick up those independent voters who dislike the socialism which now rules the Democratic party, but are much more wary of religious candidates. I'm suspecting that there are quite a lot of those.

So, while the Republicans would end up a lot smaller than before at first, I wonder if picking up secular moderates from the Democrats in that manner might not make up much, or even most, of the difference. In that case, splitting the Right would not result in automatic Democratic rule at all.

One of the best ways to kick that process off done would be if the most secular Republican -- AFAIK, that's Rudy Guiliani -- won their nomination, regardless of whether he wins the general election or not. The goal is not to "defeat" the theocrats, but to goad them into marginalizing themselves by leaving. It would also split conservatism itself, forcing it to address the "freedom versus God" contradiction that they've been dodging all these years.

So there you go, Objectivists, how about that idea? Register as Republicans with the goal of goading the theocrats into forming their own party? If the long run is your dominant consideration in the political process, and the theocrats are the biggest threat therein, than I'd say that inside the Republican Party is where the battle is, right now.

Gus Van Horn said...

That's an interesting take on the "Help Rudy Win" idea I've seen batted around lately, and one which may address my doubts about the tactic backfiring should Rudy lose the election in such a case.

Thanks for sharing that.

Joe at Forces blog said...

Could you all explain in more detail why "...forming our own party would slow down our cause..."?

Gus Van Horn said...

The basic problem is that winning elections and changing minds are two completely different goals.

To achieve a concrete political goal in a representative democracy, one must be willing to form coalitions with people with whom one does not necessarily agree on other issues. Once can, for example, work to reduce the budget by killing a program with help from people who dislike it for the wrong reasons. (Whether one should in a given context is a separate question.)

To achieve cultural change requires persuading other people to reevaluate some of their beliefs. This is something that generally cannot be done through mere electioneering anyway, but considering that a political party is designed to win elections rather than safeguard an ideology, a political part would be ill-suited to do this.

It is perhaps easier to see the conflict between ends and means by considering what it would take for a political party to become even close to being ideologically consistent enough to bring about cultural change through a consistent message: an explicit ideological statement, and expulsion of members who do not toe the ideological line come to mind.

Who that doesn't already agree with the line would want to join? And how effective would such an entity be at spreading ideas when it is also concerned with winning elections?

Such an entity would always be at cross-purposes with itself. The need to win elections would result in a push to water down basic principles to gain popularity within a culture that does not agree with the original principles while the need to have a coherent message would hamper the expansion of members. This conflict is basically what destroyed (and had to destroy) the Libertarian Party as a party for individual rights.

The cause of liberty does ultimately depend on winning elections, but only after people generally begin to realize that the measures they currently support are inimical to individual rights. For them to do so requires that they be consistently exposed to a rational alternative, which a political party is ill-equipped to do. By the time they do, there will be no need for such a political party.

In short, a political party would hamper our cause by distracting us from the urgent need to change minds by the short-range goal of winning elections by mere compromise or the expedience of trickery.