America’s political culture has become such that the charge of disloyalty is a far more indelible stain upon a person’s character than a charge of criminal behavior or personal misconduct.
The 2016 election was a race between a career politician whose record of abusing the law for personal gain was as long as her record of public service and a businessman with an unsettling habit of personally denigrating any who criticized or disagreed with him. Yet, the strongest argument each had for their own candidacy was the offenses of the other side were worse. And any who rejected this binary morality were accused of virtue signaling,” or adopting a preening attitude of moral superiority which was undertaken, not out of any serious concern with the obvious flaws of the candidates and how this might impact the quality of governance, but out of a desire to flaunt the superiority of their unadulterated idealism.
The categorizing of virtue as a pejorative is a sign of the decline of substantive ideas and values as the supreme guide in political life. Virtue, in this context, is about intellectual consistency; it is to demand that ideology, channeled through a set of beliefs that guide one’s policy positions, not be abandoned for the sake of political expediency. It is to demand that ad hoc decisions which are ultimately in furtherance of a strategy designed to gain the most influence and power be constrained by a more constant and staid set of beliefs.
Setting consistent adherence to ideals as a standard for political virtue does require critiquing those whose mantra is something like “win at all costs.” It requires inquiring of those who abandon principles, “Win what?” But to question and reject this more mercenary approach to politics is not to condemn its practitioners.
The assertion that dissent must mean condemnation is a product of political parties placing a primacy on loyalty. Reagan’s 11th Commandment is operative here. A belief that one ought not criticize one’s party members because it damages perception of the collective brand in the polity leads to the quite logical conclusion that others operate on the same principle. Therefore, any dissent directed towards the party, even from its constituents, is damaging. It is a short step between this mindset and the assumption that malevolence—a desire to damage the party’s brand—motives criticism. And so critique quickly becomes tantamount to heresy.
This, though, is not primarily an issue driven by insistence on dogmatic adherence to an official party doctrine. To the contrary, de-emphasizing the intellectual element of the party’s identity is part of the problem.
The party needs a cohesive identity to survive, but loyalty is antithetical to ideology. Ideology is at the heart of the party; thought courses through the veins of the body politics, binding its members together and enervating them to work towards its growth. But ideologies can only be formed if the mind is free to probe and question and weight action against the broader objective truth which serves as a model for the morality of a given ideology. If criticizing the party becomes taboo, it paralyzes the party’s heart; the muscle will wither and die, leaving a great gaping hollowness at the core of politics.
But, to reiterate, parties need some element that binds citizens together and inspires them to fight for a common end. If this cannot be a shared set of values, then more venial matters, especially those related to social identity, form the core of identity.
The party’s position reflects social conditions, which means all its positions are themselves conditional and will change to reflect the popular trends and opinions of the moment. More troubling, though, is that emphasis on image rather than doctrine pits members of the polity against each other.
Criticism is taboo on the grounds that it undermines the party and jeopardizes its ability to attain power and work on behalf of its members; implicit in the rationale is the nasty insinuation that detractors—those with a different social identity—are actively working to undermine opposing factions. It is not surprising that antipathy comes to be the dominant characteristic of such a system.
What’s more, since the party cannot criticize itself, its primary tool for lobbying for its own increased power becomes working to undermine other parties. Loyalty and party identity become reflexive. One joins the party and remains loyal to it simply because it is not “the other”; one learns to hate “the other” simply because it is different from one’s own party. The locus of politics quickly becomes external. Partisanship is more a function of rejecting the ideology of another party than it is of agreeing with the ideology of one’s own party. The party’s image continues to devolve. And, since parties are bound together by mutual hatred for the other, the effect lowers the quality of the entire system.
This is the vicious cycle of devolution inevitable to a political system which names loyalty its most valuable currency.
Also published on Medium.