Principled politics: a paradox

If you are voting out of principle, you may, paradoxically, find that you have a greater duty to be pragmatic.

Let’s imagine (for the sake of argument) that all voters only voted out of self-interest. If that were the case, the government they elect should end up offering a compromise package that does enough to offer the largest electoral minority (depending on the electoral system) the least-worst electoral option.

It should be a much bigger deal, though, if you say that your personal views are largely driven by altruism and you (and lots of other voters that share your views) believe that your votes are being cast in the interests of the less-fortunate-than-you. In that case, you also have quite a strong moral duty to accept something instead of nothing.

A lot more of a moral duty than the purely self-interested voter.

The paradox here is that people who believe themselves to be voting in a principled way, and who think that they are using their vote in a moral way – they may be less willing to compromise. They may be less willing to be pragmatic. As William Burroughs put it (profanity alert!)…

“If you’re doing business with a religious son-of-a-bitch, get it in writing. His word isn’t worth shit. Not with the good lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal.”

Yet, in electoral terms, if you don’t compromise in order to be part of a winning coalition, you are betraying and damaging the people who you set out to help. You are putting them at the mercy of political parties that may not care about them, but also ones that will make the long-term political weather in ways that damages them further.

As I hope you agree with me, the value of winning elections is often undervalued.

For this reason, it’s a very responsible position to take if you accept a compromise, in which you accept a politically safe offering.

It is not elegant or attractive. In discussing this issue (particularly online, for some reason, where polarisation seems to reign) it’s very hard to make the case that a compromise with principles that you don’t support isn’t the same thing as complete capitulation to those principles.

It really isn’t. Even at the most pessimistic interpretation, not only is our government not implementing their policies, it is stopping them from changing the political climate.

This is not an easy case to make because of those common biases and misunderstandings about how politics works. It’s a kind of realism that relies upon people understanding what a hugely difficult job that a political party is trying to pull off, keeping it’s active supporters on board while also appearing to the wider, more agnostically-inclined electorate.

It’s a corollary to the argument that people overestimate how many people agree with them, and – as a result – they also vastly underestimate the difficulty that a principled political party faces in framing a better manifesto than a more pragmatic and wealthy rival.

I’m still going to come to how I think a principled politician can do their job very well under these constraints soon. Before I do so, though, I think it’s important to make the case that it is a very good principle to always try to be as genuinely democratic as possible, and I don’t mean ‘democratic’ in a simplistic way.

I’ll do that next, and very shortly.

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  1. Pingback: Democracy as a political objective | Paul Evans

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