Hierarchies of Loyalty

A provocative but interesting defense of party loyalty at Culture11 provoked several heated responses. The author, Helen Rittelmeyer, follows up with another good post:

Conor, Larison, and Sullivan all seem to prefer negotiations in which both sides understand that either of them could walk away from the table at any time. My experience with that attitude is that it inevitably infuses the negotiation with mutual suspicion, craven bargaining, and unapologetic self-interest. It’s bad insofar as it turns the two sides into self-interested businessmen rather than conscientious public servants or well-intentioned truth-seekers, and especially bad in the case of the Republican Party insofar as I’m not sure that a negotiation based on self-interest will get committed conservatives what we want. What can we threaten them with? I’m not as sure as Conor seems to be that electoral loss is even a club in our bag.  I happen genuinely to prefer negotiations in which both sides understand that they’re in it together and proceed from there, but that matters less given that I think the alternative (i.e. voters, pundits, and politicians pit various well-thought-out and deeply-felt positions against each other in a fair fight) isn’t really on the table.

Other than debating in college, reading Postmodern Conservative is perhaps the only activity that consistently makes me feel stupid, so it’s quite possible that I’ve missed her point entirely. That said, here’s my take on the limits and utility of party loyalty.

Even if you think certain relationships should not be contractual, I’m not sure why approaching politics – the ultimate transactional activity, incidentally – in a suspicious, self-interested frame of mind is a bad thing. If nothing else, recent electoral history suggests that certain groups can wield their political clout like a club – otherwise, wouldn’t McCain have picked Lieberman instead of Palin as his vice presidential nominee? To me, a political party has no intrinsic value comparable to the loyalty I invest in country or family. It may be an outgrowth of a cherished intellectual movement, but it’s useful only insofar as it advances my preferred policies in the public sphere.

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