In a recent post I wrote about my curious political history, which incorporates a number of experiences collected in both parties over nearly sixty years.
It would be sad if I hadn’t learned something from those experiences. Fortunately, I have, and I think the lessons are real.
First: Your character is more important than your political beliefs. Everybody has the right to be wrong, at least sometimes. But people with character will take steps to get it right. They’ll acknowledge mistakes. They’ll do their best to correct them.
Second: Intellectual honesty is more important than intelligence. If you’re going to make excuses for the faults of your political allies, or rationalize your support for them, or make a Faustian bargain for a political advantage, acknowledge that you’re doing it. Don’t try to cloak your actions in principles you don’t believe in.
Third: Realism is more important than consistency. John Maynard Keynes is supposed to have said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” There’s question as to whether he said it,1 but whether he did or not, we’ve all known people who disregarded facts to the contrary once they’ve made up their minds. Sometimes, we may have even done that ourselves.
Fourth: Principles are more important than ideology, labels, and parties.
- I use “ideology” here differently from most dictionary definitions. By ideology I mean a codified set of beliefs that people hold so strongly that they adjust their perceptions to match them. “You saw this . . . and you got that?” Everybody needs to have principles, but in my experience, there’s no end to the damage caused by ideologies.
- Labels are even less useful than belief systems. Often people lump groups together: you’re a liberal, you’re a conservative. People don’t lump so well in real life. Groups aren’t as monolithic as we make them out to be.
- The loss of broad-based, “big tent” parties means that parties are in danger of becoming nothing more than tribes. Do you ever get the impression that members of one party wait until the other party’s leaders decide where they stand so that they can reflexively take the opposite position? Yeah, me too.
I suggest that we consider what our real principles are, and dedicate ourselves to making those principles come alive in public policy. How?
- Vote. And help others to vote.
- Recognize that running for office is hard, particularly if you’re doing it for the right reasons. Encourage candidates that you can believe in.
- Find a candidate who represents your ideals, and help them–with time, money, and/or support.
- Or be that candidate.
Over the years, I’ve met patriots, opportunists, crooks, and cowards. I’ve learned something from all of them. Here’s my takeaway.
Sometimes we hear that everything is different now: no one cares; no one is honest; no one does things the right way. I suggest that that’s not true. There have always been people ready to do public service the right way. They were never 100% of the politicians. But they were never 0% of them either. Maybe that percentage today is higher or lower than it once was. But it’s still somewhere between none and all. It will take effort to find out.
But it’s worth it.