Pragmatics vs. Principle

There’s an interesting discussion going on the comments at The Liberty Zone over the conference call with Governor Matt Blunt yesterday.  This argument has played out many a times on the blogosphere and elsewhere.  Nikki says:

My view is that if we continue to cast our votes AGAINST a contender, instead of FOR whom we want to see in the White House, we make easier for the major parties to continue their “business as usual” policies without giving them incentive for actual change.

The last time I was for a candidate was in the primaries when I supported Fred Thompson (who was out by the time the PA primaries came around).  The time to get the person you want is in the party primaries.  Everything after that is going to be a compromise if your preferred candidate doesn’t win.  If libertarians (small l) eschew party politics, they are guaranteeing political irrelevance.  One of the reasons the candidates pay so much attention to the religious vote is because they come out in hordes in the primary elections.  Look what they did for Mike Huckabee last year.  No one expected Governor Huckabee to do as well as he did, but he had the religious vote behind him.

Bryan Pick mentioned in one of his comments:

Like I wrote earlier, if you vote third party, you send a signal to the major parties about your preferences, about where they have to go to get your vote — assuming they believe your vote is gettable.

Who exactly are you sending a signal to?  Primary voters aren’t going into the voting booth and thinking about keeping the coalition together, they are going in to vote for the candidate that most fits their individual principles.  At best, by voting third party, you can influence candidates to run who think they have the right mix of ideas and principles to prevail in the primary.  But once they’re thinking about that, you’re already dealing with compromises.

The only way to get a candidate that is aligned 100% with your views it to run yourself.  Short of that, participating in politics at the local level, and promoting candidates who share your views the most is really the only way to change things on a macroscopic scale in the long run.

No single special interest has enough clout on their own to win an election.  In our republican system, we form coalitions of interests into political parties, presumably comprised of people who hate each other less than they hate that coalition of other people.  All politics involves compromise.  It’s the nature of the beast.  At what point that compromise becomes too much to bear is a different topic, and really boils down to inidividual choice.

But I do believe that libertarians have been too demanding of a place in politics, Republican, Libertarian or otherwise, that are far beyond their contributions to it.  Perhaps there just aren’t enough libertarians out there to really have much of a place, but I don’t really believe that.  In my view, the persistent problem libertarians have had getting any traction, has to do with their unwillingness to make any compromises or do any work within the party system.

This is a long battle we wage.  It’s been raging for generations, and it’s not going to stop any time soon.  Sometimes you get dealt a not so great hand.  Sure, you can leave the game, or you can try your best to minimize your losses, and get yourself into a position to have a better hand next time.  The left has put a lot of chips down on the O-man, and I’m a lot more interested in getting him to bust out, so we can stay in the game and avoid bleeding chips.  In poker there’s a lot of luck in the draw, in politics getting a better hand involves working hard to make sure there are good cards in the deck.  I’m working for McCain this election not so much because I like him, but because if he wins we can stay in the game.  I work for the local endorsed candidates so that politicians who support gun rights have an incentive to run — they know I can help them get votes and support.  That’s making sure the deck is stacked in our favor for when we draw future hands.  It’s not fun work.  It often involves holding your nose.  Sometimes you have to put some deeply held reservations about some candidates aside in order to stay in the game.  But if you don’t get in and do the dirty work, someone else will, and they will be the ones who decide the cards the rest of us get to play with.  Personally, I’d rather help stack the deck in our favor.

16 thoughts on “Pragmatics vs. Principle”

  1. For me, the brick wall, through which I’m just never, ever going to be able to go, is that rewarding the NRA endorsed Republican (typically), for being not as bad as the Brady Campaign endorsed Democrat (again, typically), is the perfect way to slowly, inexorably push the baseline toward total citizen disarmament.

    Other people see it differently. I respect that, and won’t spit on them for it–but I also won’t feel a shred of remorse for denying my vote to the casual gun-grabber, just because his/her opponent is the passionate gun-grabber.

  2. is the perfect way to slowly, inexorably push the baseline toward total citizen disarmament.

    I would agree you have a point if that’s been the consistent direction we’ve been going, but it hasn’t been. It’s a night and day difference between where we are now, and where we were in October of 1994. A lot of that had to do with turning Congress around, a few things that were beyond our control, like 9/11 and Katrina, and getting Bush, who is also highly imperfect on our issue, into the White House over Gore/Kerry.

    I think it’s hard to argue that we would have won Heller if either Gore or Kerry had won. Bush’s solicitor might have tried to fuck us on Heller but that didn’t matter, since he picked two superb justices and got them on The Court. As much of a shit has Bush has been on our issue, we’ve made progress under his administration. I think we can also make progress under McCain. My big fear is that Obama will turn the clock back to 1992.

  3. Ditto. We have made SUBSTANTIAL progress on gun rights over the last 15 years–and pragmatic politics has been at the core of it.

    And yes, the answer is that there are relatively few ideological libertarians out there. There are a lot of people with libertarian sympathies (myself included), but who have, for a variety of reasons, learned that highly beautiful theories don’t have much to do with people.

  4. The problem with the Supreme Court justices is that there will be a Democratic majority this time around– like there wasn’t in 2005– and they will not allow McCain to nominate justices that are conservatives in the mold of Roberts or Alito, who don’t even get anywhere near being as conservative as Scalia or Thomas.

    I think that’s almost the best argument McCain has for voting for him, but even an Anthony Kennedy-style judge might not get by the Senate this time around; even Souter was boycotted by the usual suspects (ACLU, NAACP) just because he was nominated by a Republican. they said he “would end freedom for women in this country” and now he’s one of their biggest champions; they don’t go on the actual judge, just the fact that the President is Republican. McCain has almost no chance of getting someone even remotely conservative on the Supreme Court (of course, it’s possible that in 2 years the Senate could be won back), unless he can find a secretly conservative judge who has only shown liberal tendencies in public.

  5. My comment was actually intended along more general lines than this election, and this race (the presidential one).

    In my case, living in Illinois, it’s easier for me to stand on principle, because I as I see it, I have four choices, all leading to one outcome:

    1) Vote for Obama–Obama gets Illinois’ share of the electorate;

    2) Vote for McCain–Obama gets Illinois’ share of the electorate;

    3) Write in someone else (which is my plan)–Obama gets Illinois’ share of the electorate;

    4) Don’t vote–Obama gets Illinois’ share of the electorate.

    Kinda makes it easy.

  6. Yeah, I would say if you’re in IL and you hate McCain, you’re safe voting third party :) My perspective is a bit different, because PA is a battleground state.

  7. I was going ‘toss my vote away’ in IL this time around to protest McCain but now I want to show support for Palin so have decided to vote for her for VP. Unfortunately means I have to vote for McCain for President.

  8. Hi Sebastian,

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think Nicki and I were doing a “pragmatics vs. principle” debate. I thought we were both arguing about the best way to move the political football in our preferred direction.

    As for the third party argument: my contention is that voting is a signal to anyone who pays attention to those numbers and acts on them. Professional political people pay attention to how many people vote which way, and they try to figure out why those people voted as they did. If a politician believes he can reach out to those voters without sacrificing more voters elsewhere, he has an incentive to change his stance on the issue that motivates them.
    Other voters start paying attention when the numbers get sufficiently big.

    The major parties pay attention because occasionally a third party attracts enough voters to turn the course of an election. The Green Party could have done it in 2000; Perot definitely did it in 1992. Major parties, because they don’t like to lose, prefer to expand the big tent and co-opt the more popular positions of third parties if it is at all possible to do so without losing more voters elsewhere. If they can’t pivot on an issue that strikes a chord with some voters, they might lose an election.

    I don’t know that voting third-party is a terribly strong signal, but it’s there for when the major-party candidate has strayed so far from your preferences that you think electing him will result in more negative consequences than (a) allowing the other major-party candidate to win and (b) sending that signal for the major party to change.

    And your last paragraph hits roughly the same points that my comment over at Codrea’s place did.

    Still, I think we’re in trouble whether McCain or Obama wins.

  9. I think it’s a pretty weak signal. From the perspective of the gun vote, a politician might just decide the vote is too fickle and unreliable as to be worth perusing.

  10. Then again, a reliable voter is a voter you can take for granted. My calculation: If a politician thinks he can gain more than one vote before he loses yours, he’ll stretch away from you; if a politician thinks he has to lose more than one vote to gain yours, he won’t do it.

  11. Yeah, I don’t deny that there has to be a line somewhere, but I still think the primary process is where you take care of candidates who don’t support your views. Short of that, even I have a point where I can’t hold my nose, and I’ll admit, McCain is getting close to that limit even against Obama. If Bill Richardson had won the nomination, it would be a very different dynamic.

  12. The Libertarian Party’s real problem is that it tries to be a top-down organization (interesting, huh?).

    A party that can’t elect people to local offices won’t be able to elect people to state offices, and will never have a snowball’s chance in hell of electing a President.

    But the party refuses to do the hard long-term work of electing people to city councils and school boards, so they’re just grandstanding.

  13. Yeah, I would say if you’re in IL and you hate McCain, you’re safe voting third party :)

    I don’t actually hate McCain, and I’m very grateful for his military service and the sacrifice that entailed–I just don’t want to be governed by him.

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