The Perils of Political Solidarity
Corey Uhden, Politics Contributor
Samuel Johnson wrote, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He was wrong: patriotism based on reverence for America’s founding principles and philosophies is healthy. Indeed, it is preferable to rote nationalism. What he should have said is solidarity is the last refuge of scoundrels. Solidarity of purpose may be healthy but today’s solidarity of identity politics, on both sides of the ideological spectrum, is decidedly not.
Appeals to solidarity are essential in politics but deeply undemocratic. Such appeals are the root cause of our hyper-partisan and tribal political state. It is the root of negative partisanship and appeals against the politics of purpose and principle. It amounts to a demand of fealty to political leaders as protectors against perceived enemies. Coalitions built out of fear are more subservient and more likely to look away when their leaders fail to live up to their supposed standards. After all, politics is a zero-sum game of control and control affords many benefits that are difficult to refuse.
Coalitions built on values, however, are exercises in purity. Ad hominem appeals abound: “all conservatives believe X, all progressives believe Y.” The reality is far more complex. No two politicians will agree on every issue 100% of the time. National politics makes it even harder to find politicians on the same page because the issues are seen differently in different places. For example, what passes for conservatism in California might not in Texas. How can a political party control the ranks with such discord? They used to rely on ideology. A set of larger principles would emphasize their shared values and provide guidelines for leadership and policy based on those values. Unfortunately, both of the dominant ideological factions in American politics, conservatives and progressives, are increasingly defined only by their enmity toward one another.
Each side believes they have something to gain and something to lose. Thus, they see independence as a threat, a lost vote, a benefit in-kind to their enemies. In addition to the overwhelmingly personal nature of today’s political debates, the need for a coalition grows into something of a primal necessity.
It’s one thing when a known lawmaker asserts their independence but quite another when one simply assumes that everyone from a certain background should be expected to vote a certain way. Two people with identical backgrounds exposed to identical information can hold differing opinions. Instead of listening intently to the concerns of many, party leaders simply insist on speaking for the whole group and appeal directly to their shared identity. And, typically, they lash out in personal, vindictive ways when they sense a betrayal. For example, a Supreme Court Justice that might represent a great victory for diversity is instead castigated as insufficiently committed to the members of his community. And here it is essential to return to Samuel Johnson’s quote, as the most insidious form of political solidarity is false patriotism - jingoism and ethno-nationalism.
Tokenism is unhealthy too. A meritocracy exalts the most qualified voices regardless of race or gender. Diversity is attained by seeking people of different backgrounds to offer their unique, valuable insights. However, the two are not mutually exclusive - society should be color-blind but not indifferent to the advantages of privilege and access.
The politics of solidarity betrays our consciences. Everyone should rely on their individual experiences, knowledge, and values to form an opinion and seek the parties deserving of their support. Coalitions should be based on mutual principles that anyone can identify and hold as their own. Activists should identify not with a party or movement out of obligation but by support for their overall mission. Elections should be about offering Americans a choice between different philosophies, approaches, policies, and goals.
Demanding solidarity reduces politics to the pursuit of partisan advantage, which is most alarming. It was our first president, George Washington, who warned in his farewell address that factionalism would ultimately lead the parties to seek control in order to reduce the influence of a rival faction. That would, Washington continued, forever alter the relationship of the individual to the state. It would undermine the concepts of individual and state sovereignty at the heart of the founders’ design. In short, partisan solidarity betrays the philosophy of self-government and the principles of democracy itself.
You can follow the author on Twitter @CACoreyU
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