February 24, 2016
Personal and collective virtue
From our overstocked archives
Sam Smith, 2011
My piece on mob politics evoked a number of critical responses in part because I suggested that in a two-mob country it was all right to vote for the mob that does the least evil, primarily because change is not going to come at the voting booth but by citizen action:
“This doesn't mean that one doesn't vote for a Demo thug as president or some lower position, but it means that one does so recognizing that the selection of the least dangerous mob in town is a far different matter than backing a political cause.”
Blogger Arthur Silber called me a “pig-fucking collaborationist,” to which I take some umbrage as I once was responsible for the feeding of several pigs and never once found them sexually arousing.
There were also milder criticisms:
“I agree with your conclusion that what really matters are the actions people take outside the voting booth to improve the world. However, I disagree with your cavalier suggestion that people vote for the more moderately thuggish Democrats, as if voting for the lesser evil in itself had no consequences.
“By voting for the lesser evil, we continue to bestow unearned and undeserved legitimacy on the Democratic Party. If it were even possible to reform the party and restore it to its populist roots, we can be sure that would never happen if progressives habitually award it their votes because "otherwise the more evil Republican will win".
“In my opinion, all progressives should bolt the Democratic Party and give their votes to a third party that actually represents their core values. A number of contenders exist: the Green Party (which accepts no money from corporate PACs), the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party of America, etc.”
As one of the founders of the national Green Party, as well as the DC Statehood Party (which held public offices for 25 years) I have long been a fan of third parties. I have been a member of one for four decades. But I have also found that many of those attracted to them view their potential mainly in terms of top down politics. I see it the other way around.
There are also two ethical issues: one the question of the moral position for an individual to take; the other is the political position that will produce the best results.
They are not the same. As I wrote some years back in Green Horizons:
“To slow down traffic I might be morally justified in stepping into the Interstate, spreading my arms, and shouting, "stop," but it is probably not the most useful thing I could do for the cause. Besides, like some third party presidential candidates, I might not have another opportunity. My initial virtue might turn out to have been terminal.”
The conflict is often between antiseptic and useful virtue. The danger with the former is that it too often is a sort of moral narcissism with little social value and the problem with the latter is that it can easily be co-opted and compromised.
Having a bit of Quaker blood and having gone to a Quaker school, I am not unfamiliar with this conflict. The Quakers, for example, periodically withdrew from conventional politics, engaging instead in what we would call lobbying or activism, pressing specific issues. It is also true that they have been pretty good at compromise. For example, William Penn reached the only European-Indian agreement – and not even in writing – that was actually upheld by both sides. And there is the apocryphal story of Penn’s ship, on its way to the new land, being attacked by pirates and of the great Quaker taking a knife and cutting the line with which they were boarding the craft. Said Penn: “If thee wants this rope, thee may have it.”
Of course, Quakerism is a religion and if your primary concern is your personal righteousness, then that’s not a bad route. If your concern, on the other hand, is the collective progress of a community or a nation, than the messier culture of politics may prove more productive.
In my article I was addressing those who had suffered the illusion that Obama would bring them hope and change and might now be seeking a new approach. I was trying to nudge them in a better direction. I was not addressing the righteous who deeply believe they have found the way.
For one thing, it’s usually not worth the effort, and, for another, they tend not to be particularly effective in helping the apathetic, the confused, the strayed, the hoodwinked, the angry and the hopeless in moving in a new direction. It often takes one sinner to move another.