Americans pride themselves on their independence, or “rugged individualism,” if you prefer. In politics this often has meant an attraction to the “outsider” who will “shake things up” in Washington by “breaking gridlock” and getting legislators from across the political spectrum to act according to common sense and the public interest. The actual political results of this attraction have been mixed, at best. Ross Perot gained a significant following by pointing out the obvious flaws in our political establishment, but succeeded only in electing (and re-electing) Bill Clinton. John McCain has won elections to the United States Senate by claiming he owed nothing to anyone, but has made very little difference in Washington, and his rather typical “moderate” Republican positions (delivered with generous portions of sarcasm and caustic wit) brought an embarrassing set of defeats in Presidential politics.
This is not to say that political success is all that matters in politics. Indeed, it can be argued that the very pursuit of that success is feckless, that what makes “independence” a veritable non-starter in American politics is that it tends to be so ruthlessly pragmatic. Perot, in his more lucid moments, and McCain both were set on “making democracy work.” That is, they both were, in essence, centrists who wanted the two major parties to work together toward very practical ends (balancing budgets, for example, always is a favorite among independents) without considering more fundamental issues of principle. The practical goals may, indeed, be worthy—viz. balanced budgets. But the exclusive emphasis on “getting the job done” is ill-considered. In a nation that is in the midst of transitioning from a constitutional republic in which the federal government exerts limited, enumerated powers over more organic states, themselves rooted in customs and traditions of localism and religious belief toward a unitary social democracy, issues of principle are pretty much unavoidable. Indeed, the only way to avoid them, really, is to go the route of tyrants everywhere, substituting personal charisma and power for political principles. Otherwise, and less awful, of course, one becomes merely another tax collector for the welfare state.
Perhaps, then, we ought to reconsider what we mean, or should mean, when we speak of “independence” in the political sphere. Edmund Burke knew something of political independence. He served as a chief theorist and apologist for the Rockingham Whigs, a group within Britain’s loosely aligned Whig Party that gained control of the administration for brief periods, including at a time of great crisis—dealing with the Stamp Act and its rejection by the American colonies. Later in life he stalked across the political aisle, rejecting his longtime friends and allies over their support for the murderous French Revolution and throwing in his lot with his old adversaries in the Tory Party.
Burke was, in fact, very concerned with practical matters, both in relation to the national interest and in regard to practitioners of the political arts. He urged his fellow Members of Parliament to set aside grand concerns for the abstract “sovereignty” of the British Parliament and make peace with Americans who wanted to be loyal subjects, but only in accordance with the very practical traditions of self-governance that had grown up over time. He opposed Parliamentary reforms, including more frequent elections, on the grounds the he “should be fearful of committing, every three years, the independent gentlemen of the country into a contest with the treasury.” Money in politics is nothing new, after all. And, in a contest with any Administration, those who put the public interest first always are at a financial disadvantage.
Burke sought to maintain the balanced British Constitution against the “friends of the King” who sought to rule by corruption, and against the “progressives” of his day who flirted with Revolution. His practical efforts were devoted, more than anything else, to opposing corruption. He reformed the “list” of offices the King could control (and reward for loyalty), and he pursued Warren Hastings for his conduct as Governor General in India both out of a concern for the native populations and out of fear that Hastings’ corrupt methods were undermining the independence of Parliament.
But Burke’s goal in fighting corruption was not to eliminate all constraints on the judgment of individual Members of Parliament—he sought no House of Individuals. Rather, he sought to make possible principled party government. Late in his career he left his own party because it had become, in principle, revolutionary, even though its leaders claimed a practical devotion to the British Constitution. Principle, Burke argued, was the font of responsible government; should the “principle” be false and revolutionary, the result would be chaos.
Burke defined a party as “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours, the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” This was no call for ideological zealotry. Ideology—belief in a false, second reality to which the ideologue would force our actual society to conform—is the mother of revolution. Principle, on the other hand, is an inherent aspect of reality. For example, Burke recognized the principle of order; he knew that all societies are made up of different kinds of people. This is no execrable biological determinism, relegating some to sub-human status. Rather, Burke recognized that history, tradition, and diversity of talent and circumstance inevitably create a variety of professions, classes, and vocations that really matter for how a society is constructed, and that attempts to eliminate the order these differences create will wreak havoc with daily life and breed, not brotherhood, but bloodshed.
Reason being fallible and circumstances variable, there will be differences of opinion on how best to interpret and follow principle, just as there will different emphases on which principles to give priority and how. Moreover, one cannot act on principle to the exclusion of personality, for character matters in politics; one must look to one’s fellows for guidance and assistance in the rough and tumble of political life. Thus, it is not only independent judgment of principle that matters in politics. There also must be judgment of character in one’s allies, and a willingness to work with others toward common ends. Burke was glad that in his time one could still find examples “of an unshaken adherence to principle, and attachment to connection, against every allurement of interest.” Burke’s point was that parties should be centered on a common set of core principles as to how best to serve the public interest, bound by common loyalty and honor, rather than the mere pursuit of personal gain.
Today’s parties, sadly, are coalitions bent on gaining political office. Our political scientists have been telling us this for decades, and there always was some truth to the claim. Such truths become more “true,” as it were, over time as principle becomes subject to mockery and the benefits of servitude to the state increase. The result, sadly, is not more “practical” governance, but rather an increase in corruption and an increased susceptibility to ideological extremism. And mere practicality will serve us ill in such times. The mere pursuit of interest cannot defeat the pursuit of ideology, for whatever “practical” benefits a politician without principle may offer, the ideologue’s promises will be infinitely more grand and appealing. Only after disaster strikes will mere practicality have a chance to win the day, and then it will be too late.
We should not be looking, then, for independents in our politics. We should be giving our support to those within our political parties who seek to return them to sane principles, rather than the combination of ideology and self-interest into which they have devolved. This may no longer be possible, at least directly, at the national level. But one can hope to find like-minded people of character in one’s locality within whom one may make common cause on the basis of principle. One thing is for certain: no amount of “common sense” or “rugged individualism” will make up for an independent-minded connection to principle and good character.
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