Monday, January 23, 2017

On Lacking Principle

It's a commonly held belief that politicians are just a bunch of unprincipled sleazebags who will sell their own mothers for a vote. This belief is commonly held because, not to put too fine a point on it, it's true.

That's an odd comment coming from me. I've worked for politicians. I like politicians - some are good personal friends. I spend a truly inordinate amount of time thinking about politics, and how to make politicians see that my views are ones they should promote. I've even considered running someday myself. But despite all that, I know that politicians will always disappoint me, will always push ideas that I don't want(and often that they don't either), and will always be at least as concerned with the next election as they are with doing the right thing.

A set of ironclad principles speaks well of someone. Being an uncompromising defender of what you believe is a good way to make sure you can look at yourself in the mirror, that you never slip into darkness, and that you never trade away the things that really matter. But we live in democracies - politicians may lead, but the people truly rule. The people, taken as a mass, do not have ironclad principles. Individuals can, but society as a whole is splintered into a hundred different viewpoints, and a thousand different ways to say "I don't really care, just make it work already".

If you want to lead in a democracy, you need to assemble a voting base that will support you, and it needs to be a bigger voting base than anyone else has. You can't do that with ironclad principles, because the vast majority of the public won't agree with them. They may respect you, they may even occasionally vote for you if the other candidate is bad enough, but most of the time they'll just salute your campaign as it burns to the ground. A truly principled and uncompromising politician can almost never achieve real power.

A sleazebag, on the other hand, can. You can give trinkets to your supporters, extend olive branches to your opponents, get groups on side by giving them what they want on some minor issue here or there, make friends, build support, parrot back what people want to hear, and do a hundred other necessary and unsavoury things if you're not encumbered by principles. You can be flexible, you can compromise, and you can make deals. And it's by doing precisely those things that you can achieve power.

It's possible to take this too far, of course. Hell, it's really easy sometimes. These are dark arts I describe, and following them is a dark path. There's a reason that stories talk about paths like that ending in disaster so often. And as much as being unprincipled on some issues is an aid to your political career, if you entered politics for any reason besides self-aggrandizement(and most do), you need a compass. Even if you're travelling south, you need to know where true north is.

The ideal politician is a principled one in thought, even if they sometimes lack principles in action. They do the wrong thing, but they do it for the right reasons. They pick a few goals, and trade horses as much as they need to in order to get them. They keep in mind their strength relative to their opponents, and don't overreach it. They focus more on winning the quiet battles, the ones that don't excite attention, while spending less time in the circus. They disappoint the true believers in the moment, but they make the world better in the long run.

Very few people are cut out for this role. I don't think I am. The friend who inspired this post is quite certainly not, and never will be. For us, there are other parts to play - the think tanks, the advocacy groups, and the advisory roles are where we belong. We can keep those principles at the front of our minds and play counterpoint to the hacks that just want to win at any cost. We can keep the torch held high when our friends in office feel the need to drop it. We can form our own pressure groups to make sure that even the true sleazeballs do a few things right. But we can't govern, because governing requires compromise, and ironclad principles don't allow for that.

The world of politics requires those who can wade in the muck and remember what it is to be clean, who can betray us for the sake of what we both believe, and who can bend dark arts to noble purposes. Following that path is hard, and telling who is actually following it and who's just pretending isn't much easier. And as much as I'm technically saying this in a public forum, I don't intend that this ever be a message that gets a lot of public traction - the idea of principle is an important one. But the importance of lacking principle is real, much as I wish it were otherwise.

There's a reason so many of our heroes are flawed. It's not because they want to be, and not even because we're all imperfect humans.Those flaws are what got our heroes into the position to be great in the first place. If principle keeps people from greatness, then you can't judge their greatness by how well they keep to principles. You have to judge it by the standards of who else would have been there instead.

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