On Political Etiquette

Political loyalty is a poison to sober, reasoned discourse. When a primacy is placed upon loyalty as a value, substantive and complex ideologies cease to be the standard of political ethics; they are deposed in favor of slavish obedience to party elites.

A political etiquette that overemphasizes loyalty courts disaster, but so does a political etiquette that rejects the value of loyalty outright. The former promotes a system of patronage, where those at the top preside over a tournament where contenders vie for supremacy, besting each other with displays of obsequiousness; the latter promotes a cutthroat culture of rogue political mercenaries who let nothing stand between them and political advancement.

There is one flaw common to these opposing etiquettes: a lack of regard for merit. The ethics which drive the engine of politics should reward allegiance, but not to people or organizations. Principles and ideas, chosen as meritorious following an exacting process of discreet judgments where the merit of competing values is weighed and those found lacking are discarded, must be the gauge of political etiquette.

Political loyalty should be to these ideas as they are expressed through positions and actions. Loyalty to party organs and politicians must be more tempered; they deserve allegiance to the degree they support principles, but must be condemned when they fail them.

Politicians and party organs are functionally only a conduit through which ideas are expressed. They owe loyalty to those values which form the core tenets of their party’s plank, not to the party organs themselves. Parties in the electorate spread these ideas to their like-minded constituents; parties in government lobby for policies based on these ideas.

Values are the stabilizing substratum of political culture; without it, governance buckles beneath its own weight.

To the mind of political scientists, parties are creatures of the polity; their genetics are determined by the makeup of their constituencies. They are like marionettes, their every move a reaction to a tug on the string which runs straight to the hand of a member of the voting public.

Ideology, in this view, is not a matter of freedom of conscience, but a reflection of political expediency and the needs of voters. This sophistic rationale is fallacious, but convenient. It absolves those with political authority of the need to develop any moral compass. Instead, one can call upon the nebulous “will of the people,” a term so vaguely defined as to have no real meaning. Which, coincidentally, makes it rather difficult to disprove. Further, the attempt to do so is met with faux moral outrage, since this constitutes an attack on the sovereignty of the people, in which democratic systems instill a sense of moral absolutism.

And this, ultimately, enables the dysfunction of a political etiquette grounded in loyalty. There is absolutism present, but this is instilled in a faith that the conscience of the voter is supreme and infallible and that politicians will serve this, so long as one is loyal to the party.

Loyalty becomes a function of communion between an identity group in the electorate and a party which claims to recognize its value. It is a communion of usury.

Value might form the basis of the voter-politician relationship, however value is the product of a jigsaw puzzle process where politicians cobble together ideas which they think will resonate with the voter and voters support parties based on who can most efficiently provide for need.

Each sees each other as a means to an end, not as a mean to itself. Voters become dependent on politicians to fulfill their needs; they do not look for ways to serve themselves. The same is true of politicians. They divorce policy from overarching concepts such as rights and govern aesthetically, presenting a front of efficient and faithful service to voters.

This is the problem with a political etiquette based on loyalty. It is hollow and self-serving. Loyalty connotes a single-minded dogmatism which is based on utility. It denigrates the worth of the individual by promoting a system in which they are tools from which something can be exploited.

It abandons intellectualism, often presenting it as elitist. Ideas, like everything else, are a means to an end when loyalty is the prime political value. But the ad hoc and venal ideologies which are formed under political loyalty are ultimately pointless. While it may be true that the majority of voters are not motivated by any deeply-engrained, cohesive set of principles, this does not mean they lack the mental capacity to weight the evidence of political speech against reality and sniff out disingenuous pandering.

Nor does the fact that political parties can only gain power by advocating ideas that resonate with voters exclude a political etiquette grounded in absolute value. Those who found political parties have the freedom of conscience to develop an epistemology; reality bears out the merits of its tenets. Voters, who are motivated by need, can see this.

The practicalities of realpolitik can coexist with idealism. But this requires a political etiquette of fidelity, not loyalty. Political fidelity connotes an exacting loyalty that is earned by shows of good-faith. It is a more nuanced understanding of allegiance. Whereas loyalty requires no discretion, fidelity demands political actors have a highly developed ethic, one which requires them to be true to the values and promises upon which they ran. When this is borne out, they are rewarded with the reason-based approbation of their constituents.

This is a far more demanding political etiquette, but its boon is peace of mind, the surety of knowing that politics is not a vaudevillian show, that elected officials are not adopting a front which masks their desire for power and status. Rather, individuals are connecting through mutual comprehension of the merit of an idea.

Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.



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