Finding a Political Home

2012-08-12

For many years now, I've felt politically homeless. In large measure that's because I am an individualist, and individualists don't look fondly on what they perceive as the herd instinct of party thinking and party activism. Yet as I have understood more about history and society (at least I hope I'm making such progress!), I have begun to see more clearly how cultural and political change happens.

Most significantly, it happens slowly. As John Adams said of the American Revolution:

The American Revolution was not a common event. Its effects and consequences have already been awful over a great part of the globe. And when and where are they to cease?

But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American War? The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people, a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. While the king, and all in authority under him, were believed to govern in justice and mercy according to the laws and constitution derived to them from the God of nature, and transmitted to them by their ancestors, they thought themselves bound to pray for the king and queen and all the royal family, and all in authority under them, as ministers ordained of God for their good. But when they saw those powers renouncing all the principles of authority, and bent upon the destruction of all the securities of their lives, liberties, and properties, they thought it their duty to pray for the Continental Congress and all the thirteen state congresses, etc.

There might be, and there were, others who thought less about religion and conscience, but had certain habitual sentiments of allegiance and loyalty derived from their education; but believing allegiance and protection to be reciprocal, when protection was withdrawn, they thought allegiance was dissolved.

Another alteration was common to all. The people of America had been educated in a habitual affection for England as their mother country; and while they thought her a kind and tender parent (erroneously enough, however, for she never was such a mother) no affection could be more sincere. But when they found her a cruel beldam, willing, like Lady Macbeth, to "dash their brains out," it is no wonder if their filial affections ceased and were changed into indignation and horror.

This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.

Notice here too, as I explored in my earlier post, that changed circumstances can lead to changed thinking. Nowadays that gives me hope of a different kind. For circumstances have indeed changed in America. Increasingly, it seems to me, many Americans who once thought of the federal government as a "kind and tender parent" have begun to awaken to the cruel reality that the agents of central power are perfectly willing to "dash their brains out". The issues we care about might differ: for some it is free speech while for others it might be medical choice or homeschooling or religious freedom or self-defense or the opportunity to start a business or the ability to save for retirement or the simple human birthright to lead a decent life. The multifarious offices and agencies of the federal government were long "believed to govern in justice and mercy according to the laws and constitution derived to them from the God of nature"; but now I think Americans are beginning to see "those powers renouncing all the principles of authority, and bent upon the destruction of all the securities of their lives, liberties, and properties".

These issues cut across party lines. Although the political elites like to keep the people divided, the principles that unite most Americans run much deeper than party. And I continue to think, along with Tocqueville, that "There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle."

Yet America has a two-party system. I once thought it would be possible to work successfully within a third party (for me it was the Libertarian Party). I now see that no third party will ever be successful in America, especially not a party of principle. That's not because Americans are unprincipled; it's because they are principled as individuals, and because the American political system is quite entrepreneurial in many ways (e.g., we don't have the kind of parliamentary discipline that exists in other countries: here politicians pursue their own individual ends to a large degree).

Thus ideological calls for "principle over party" or practical calls for "party over principle" both ring hollow to me now. The best one can hope for (at least in the realm of electoral politics) is "principle through party": to choose, as a tactical matter, the party through which you want to work for your strategic principles.

For me this has always presented a conundrum, for I am something between a free-market liberal and a secular conservative. These sound, almost, like oxymorons. Aren't all liberals (in the American sense) in favor of economic control or even socialism and thus opposed to the free exchange of goods and services? I hope that's not true, and that there are strategic liberals (and tactical Democrats) who favor the emergent processes of voluntary human interaction within truly free markets. (I don't see a lot of that these days, but perhaps I'm missing it and I'd love someone to show me that there really are some Jeffersonian Democrats still in existence.) And aren't all conservatives in favor of thought control or even theocracy and thus opposed to free exchange of ideas? Here I might be showing my bias, but I do perceive a rather significant bloc of fiscal or economic conservatives who while perhaps not exactly free thinkers or secularists are more interested in fiscal responsibility and economic freedom than in some kind of theocratic thought control. (Further, as a practical matter, despite the cries of imminent theocracy among the critics of conservatism, there's not much evidence that conservatives have really attempted to establish theocratic rule anywhere in the U.S., aside from some school-board policies on the teaching of evolution -- to which the solution is, I think, true educational freedom achieved by breaking the government monopoly on education.)

I know what my political principles are: freedom, liberty, individual rights, small government, local decision-making, a true populism in which the people hold the power, a form of government that is best because it governs least. The challenge for me has always been to figure out tactics to match that long-term strategy. I tried the third-party route, but that's a non-starter. I support groups and initiatives that seek change outside of electoral politics, such as the Institute for Justice. Yet politics happens, and if you want to effect change often it needs to happen within a party: you need to elect better, more principled people.

This is hard, slow work requiring great patience and persistence. It starts at the precinct level and works its way up through county committees, state representatives and state senators, and other state and local offices. A few months ago I learned much more about this process at a seminar offered by the Colorado chapter of the Republican Liberty Caucus (RLC). Although there's a similar group working within the Democratic Party, called the Democratic Freedom Caucus, it appears to have less of an impact than the RLC and to be well-organized only in Maine, Maryland, and Missouri. By contrast, the RLC is organized in many states and as far as I can see has a reasonable approach to electing liberty-oriented individuals to state and local offices: in essence, they focus their energy on supporting effective Republican candidates who uphold the principles of individual rights, limited government, and free enterprise. Thus, unlike the Libertarian Party, they don't encourage "line-holder" candidates with no chance of winning, and they don't fight against any Republican candidates (although they support only those Republican candidates who have the right principles). This strikes me as a sensible and positive approach to the tactical field of electoral politics. Again, it's a matter of principle through party.

It's probably too early for me to say that I'm no longer politically homeless, but I do think the Republican Liberty Caucus might be a productive way to work toward greater freedom in America, especially since I can get involved locally here in Colorado. And I plan to do just that.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal