That you accept an entangled career politician who stands for absolutely nothing as the pragmatic choice vs a corrupt psychopath says more about your standards than anything […] And you choosing sides in [the election] should make you ashamed.
– Gary Johnson Supporter, via email
MR WRONG YOUR ATTACKS ON JILL STEIN ARE DISGUSTING! YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF. YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE! UNFOLLOW!
– Jill Stein Supporter, via Facebook Messenger
It seems I should be ashamed.
Ashamed for choosing a side.
Ashamed for supporting a candidate.
Ashamed for mocking certain third parties.
Ashamed for being part of the problem instead of the magical unicorn solution.
Ashamed for engaging in a political process composed of psychopaths and corruption.
There’s plenty more feedback where those comments came from. They’re all of similar bent. The common theme being I should be ashamed for throwing in with a mainstream candidate from one of the mainstream political parties.
I should be ashamed.
As noted in the previous post, I should probably be a lot of things.
I’m a white straight male veteran and if you listen to people who purport to be experts on who I should be, I should be a Republican. I should be a Conservative. I should be a nationalist and a Jingoist and a gun-waving patriot and should probably belong to a militia. I should be a Christian. I should despise my government. I should hate certain groups of people to be named later. And so long as we’re at it, let me throw in a few shouldas of my own: I should be a more disciplined writer. I should exercise more. I should be more patient. I should be more understanding. I should be better at remembering names. I should drink less expensive whiskey … okay, never mind that last one, I think I’ve made my point here.
I should be a lot of things.
So you might as well go right ahead and add ashamed to that list because I’m not gonna be that either.
I’m not ashamed to be voting for Hillary Clinton.
And why should I be?
Look here, it should have been readily apparent from the previous post that I’m not a Democrat. I’m also not a Republican. Or a member of any political party. I am, in point of fact, a registered Independent. And as I have noted many times, despite appearances I’m not a Liberal. I’m also not a Conservative. I suppose you could call me a Progressive, but even that isn’t particularly accurate.
What I am is a pragmatist.
Yeah, you said that before, Jim.
But what does that mean exactly?
Allow me an illustration: in the novel Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein postulated a world unified under a single global government. That civilization was born from the wreckage of war, created by veterans who were weary of death and ruin and politicians who started wars for other men to fight. This society enjoyed all of the freedoms we Americans do and many more and those rights were fully equal across the board no matter race, creed, color, sex, origin, or orientation. But there was a catch: the people were divided into two classes, citizens and taxpayers. In this world everybody was born a taxpayer without exception, no matter who their parents were. Taxpayers enjoyed all rights and all protections of citizens with two exceptions, they could not hold office and they could not vote. Only citizens could hold elected office and only citizens could vote. No exceptions. Now, there was no stigma associated with being a taxpayer versus a citizen and many people were just as happy to go about their lives without the franchise content to let others run the world.
However the pivot the entire story turned on was this: Any taxpayer could at anytime become a citizen.
But again, there was a catch. To become a citizen in this world, you had to be a veteran.
Anybody could serve once they were of legal age no matter their physical condition and no one could stop them. If they wanted to sign up, the military would find them a job no matter what. The example Heinlein used was if you were blind and confined to a wheelchair, the military would find you a job counting the hairs on a caterpillar by touch. The only people who couldn’t serve were those who were mentally incapable of understanding the oath. Two years of service and an honorable discharge and you were a citizen.
Now Starship Troopers and the society it depicts had a huge impact on a lot of people, me included.
Robert Heinlein himself was branded a fascist by those who didn’t read the book carefully (or didn’t bother to read the book at all), because the society he described required military service in exchange for full citizenship and because his protagonist Johnny Rico grew to love the military and made it his life and home. This label of fascism is the height of irony given that Heinlein was a US Navy Officer who spent WWII doing everything he was physically capable of to fight fascism (Heinlein was invalided out of the Navy due to pulmonary tuberculosis on the eve of WWII and served as a reserve officer doing secret research during the war). Doubly so given that story takes great pains not to glorify military service in any way whatsoever and the authorities in the story do everything in their power to discourage enlistment at every opportunity and offer a variety of honorable alternatives.
The point being that for many people since its publication, the emotions stirred by Starship Troopers verge on those we see around us today. Accusations of fascism. Passionate defenses of liberty and freedom and the roles of government. The right to vote. Military service as a duty versus a means to an end – and as a fetish of patriotism.
But what many folks missed – and continue to miss – is the part where Heinlein himself never claimed such a society was desirable or even admirable.
And in point of fact, Heinlein took great pains in the text to do just the opposite.
Major Reid smiled. “Mr. Salomon, I handed you a trick question. The practical reason for continuing our system is the same as the practical reason for continuing anything: It works satisfactorily.
And there it is, pragmatism.
Heinlein spends a lot of the book engaged in a somewhat heavy handed exploration of the philosophy of government and the morality of war – but then he was a military officer writing for 14-year-old boys at the height of the Cold War (i.e. for kids like me) – and many readers skimmed past his lectures on History and Moral Philosophy to get to the parts about The Bugs and the Mobile Infantry.
And they shouldn’t have, because they missed the best part.
If they’d read more closely they would have realized none of the characters (channeling Heinlein himself) ever said their society was better, only that it was the one they had.
It works satisfactorily was the strongest endorsement Heinlein’s characters ever offered.
And in that, Heinlein was, as he often did, deliberately paraphrasing our own Founding Fathers.
I trust that I have now made clear to you the tremendous responsibilities. We must do the best we can with what we have.
—John Paul Jones, September 14, 1775; Letter to the Continental Congress
Heinlein wasn’t exactly subtle about it. He was an Academy officer himself and intimately familiar with America’s first navy commander and he put that John Paul Jones quote at the start of the appropriate chapter.
And what he was talking about is this: Pragmatism.
This country was founded on it.
We must do the best we can with what we have.
That’s what compromise is, you know, pragmatism.
Getting what you can, while giving the other guy what you can in return. It doesn’t take any great perception to look at the Constitution and see it as a patchwork of compromise, some of which didn’t work out in practicality and had to be pragmatically amended via additional compromise – see the 12th Amendment, or the 13th.
That’s what democracy is, compromise. Ongoing, endless, compromise.
If you get everything you want, every time, then you’re not living in a democracy.
America may be exceptional but it’s rarely perfect. It clunks along pretty well for the majority of its citizens most of the time despite the loud and violent protestations of the angry mob and the radical fringe.
That doesn’t mean it works for everybody all of the time.
Nor does that mean we Americans shouldn’t be working hard towards a more perfect union and making our country work for more of its citizens more of the time.
Which takes us at long last to the point of this piece: Our de facto two-party system.
We were warned against political parties by the most prominent of our founders:
"[Political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."
-- President George Washington
No truer words, eh?
Unfortunately, by the time Washington spoke those words during his farewell address at Mount Vernon on September 17, 1796, and went on to say political parties served only to turn brother against brother, it was already too late. The Federalists (strong central government) and the Democratic-Republican (anti-federalist, weak central government) parties were already fully formed and rising to power in the new nation.
Despite that, was the government and the political system they forged via compromise then (and perhaps still now) better than what came before?
But over time, while the names have changed and ideology has shifted back and forth, the basic division between strong and weak central government remains, cleaving the country into roughly equal halves with a halo of small special-interest third parties orbiting around the edge. And in retrospect, with the hindsight of 240 years of political evolution, could the Founders have left us a better system?
Many such supposedly better systems have been proposed.
And so now, here, today, is this the best system of government?
No. Obviously not for many reasons, chief among them is that in the course of time and things our de facto two party system has grown into a potent engine by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men are able to daily subvert the power of the people and seize for themselves the reins of government and are even now destroying the very engines which lifted them to this unjust dominion.
But like it or not, for now, pragmatically, this is the system we have.
And to paraphrase John Paul Jones, we have tremendous responsibilities, to our country, to ourselves, to our children, to the present, to the future, to history, and we must do the best we can with what we have at hand now.
“…choosing sides should make you ashamed.”
We all choose sides.
Failure to choose is still a choice.
Refusal to participate in the process because it’s not perfect isn’t a virtue. It’s at best foolishness and at worse cowardice.
When you stand on the battlefield between two great armies you either pick a side or find yourself trampled under the hooves of the warhorses and the boot heels of the infantry. Certainly, you may retreat from the field if there’s time, find yourself a place of safety and watch the battle from a distant hill. You can then congratulate yourself for your morality and for standing pat on principle, but in the end you’re going to have to live with whoever wins that battle down below and by refusing to pick a side you’ve chosen just the same.
Whether you like it or not, whether or not there might be a better system, right now, today, between them the Republican and the Democratic parties represent the vast majority of American citizens. Their respective platforms describe the general divisions of our society. Their candidates reflect us in majority, for good or for ill – and it’s important to remember both, good and ill, are often subjective. Q.E.D.
Understand something: I am not such a pragmatist that I cannot admire idealism.
And I do admire idealism – up to the point where it become inflexible dogmatism.
I believe Third Parties serve a useful function as reservoirs of idealism and wellsprings of new ideas and often encompass an enthusiasm sorely lacking in the two mainstream parties.
However, while idealism may spawn democracy, it is pragmatism that makes it work in the long run and you have only to compare the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution to see that as fact.
Moreover, idealism when it becomes inflexible and uncompromising can kill democracy just as surely as internal apathy or an assault from the outside – see the Tea Party and resulting congressional gridlock et al.
What both the commenters quoted at the beginning of this article fail to realize is this: Should any Third Party replace and become a mainstream party, it will within short order become indistinguishable from that which has gone before. This is the nature of our society. For Jill Stein or Gary Johnson to become President, the nature of our political system is such that they would have to become Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in order to get elected. This is the lesson of Bernie Sanders – or Ralph Nader. The idealism of any Third Party is so far outside the main camps of Federalism/Anti-Federalism that such candidates simply cannot rally enough votes either popular or electoral to win – the closest any Third Party has ever come was George Wallace in 1968 and he wasn’t even close, which is why he went back to being a Democrat in 1972.
At present, the important function of Third Parties is to spur evolutionary change in the mainstream, not win the election.
Does this mean you shouldn’t throw in with a Third Party?
No. Of course not.
But you shouldn’t be ashamed if you don’t either.
Whether or not our political system is a reflection of us, of our society, of human nature itself, or an unintended side effect of the compromises made by our Founding Fathers, is utterly irrelevant to the task at hand.
It is what it is.
And it’s not going to change between now and next Tuesday.
In the final analysis we must do the best we can with what we have.
And there’s no shame in that at all.
They didn’t want it good, they wanted it Wednesday
-- Robert Anson Heinlein