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What is a commercial republic?

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My friend Ben Domenech offers an excellent email newsletter called The Transom. Great links and brief comments, excellent news coverage on politics and political economy, tidbits and humor. Sign up here. Today’s edition included memorable little essay ON PATRICK HENRY, from which I’ll excerpt a good bit:

. . . It was 237 years ago, in Virginia, that Patrick Henry gave a speech that rang out through the colonies and urged the people to stand up for their liberty. . . . There is a line that comes before the more famous conclusion which I have always loved. In making his case that the colonists should be willing to stand even against the armed might of the British Empire, which had put down so many colonial rebellions in the past, Henry urged the Virginians on, saying: “The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.”

What this means is clear: that there is no excuse for failing to stand up for liberty when that is what is demanded of you, even to the end. And Henry himself proved this in his own life. While an avowed anti-federalist and an opponent of the ratification of the Constitution in the late-1780s, two things changed his mind: he broke with Thomas Jefferson over the French revolution. [Condemning the French approach, he declared] that freedom without virtue descends to anarchy; and he rejected Jefferson's increasingly vile and personal attacks on his old friend George Washington. . . . And Henry rejected outright the nullification doctrine, approved by Jefferson and Madison in the Kentucky-Virginia Resolutions, seeing within it the seeds of the rebellion which later came.

In the late 1790s, a mutual friend took the liberty of forwarding one of Henry's letters to Washington . . . Henry wrote of how his fears regarding misuse of Constitutional powers had been mitigated by Washington’s leadership, and that he no longer doubted that the Federalist approach was the wisest one. Washington was so moved by it that he asked Henry personally to stand for election to the House of Delegates as a Federalist to push back against the nullifiers . . . Henry, astounded by the outreach from the greatest man of the age, of course did his duty and ran, writing to Washington that “My Children would blush to know that you and their Father were Contemporarys, and that when you asked him to throw in his Mite for the public Happiness, he refused to do it" – despite being basically an invalid at this point, sick with stomach cancer.

What happened next, as written in Pulitzer winner Burton J. Hendrick’s Bulwark of the Republic: “The response to this appeal came at Charlotte Courthouse in early March, 1799. A huge crowd gathered, for Patrick Henry had announced that he would address his fellow citizens on that day. After declining to be Secretary of State and Chief Justice of the United States, he had acceded to Washington’s request, and was about to ask his neighbors to elect him to the state legislature… The hero worship bestowed by the crowd on Henry that morning indicated the importance of his intercession. When the speaker arose, his weakness was manifest. His face was colorless and careworn, his whole frame shaky, his voice, at the beginning, cracked and tremulous. In a few minutes, however, the Henry of the old Virginia House of Burgesses sprang from this emaciated shell. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were denounced with all the vehemence that had once been visited on King George. These proceedings filled him ‘with apprehension and alarm . . . they had planted thorns upon his pillow . . . the state had quitted the sphere in which she had been placed by the Constitution . . . in daring to pronounce upon the validity of Federal laws she had gone out of her jurisdiction.’ . . . Charlotte Courthouse, where this speech was made, is situated less than thirty miles from Appomattox, and from this spot, seventy years afterward, were heard the guns that forced Lee’s surrender. Patrick Henry seemed to have divined all this as the inescapable outcome of the Virginia Resolutions. ‘Such opposition on the part of Virginia’—this was his parting message to his countrymen—'to the acts of the general government must beget their enforcement by military power,' and this would produce 'civil war.' 'Let us trust God,' Henry declaimed, 'and our better judgment to set us right hereafter. United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs.'”

Henry won the election handily, and having proven his point, promptly died before he could be sworn in – vigilant, active, brave to the end.

That’s a tale you won’t often hear told by a latter-day Jeffersonian, but it’s a good one. The French Revolution induced a lot of honest men to question their assumptions anew. The intoxicant of revolution had acquired a Won’t Get Fooled Again edge to it rather quickly. The Jacobins had taken an ax not just to monarchy, but to religion and property as well. They had opened the gates of political hell, allowing all the powers of chaos free reign over the prostrate French nation.

In observing France a lot of Americans learned that there must be order for there to be liberty. Jefferson was, alas, a little slow on the uptake.

But Henry’s estimate of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions seems in this telling notably strident. Were these documents really germ of secession and disunion, or something less fatal?

Patrick Henry was robbed by death of the chance to hear Jefferson’s First Inaugural, in 1801, wherein the new President proclaimed:

But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

On that day in March of 1801, Jefferson’s conciliatory tone marked triumph for the principle of “ballots over bullets,” and began an age of government by compromise that endured for some six decades, and (reformed by a grave passage through war and crisis) endures to this day.

Those “factions which must destroy” American equipoise had differed sharply, bitterly, irresponsibly: but they had failed to destroy. Differences of opinion there had been in abundance. Rhetoric was fierce. The Election of 1800, in its intensity and vehemence, would make a modern operative blush. The truculence had frightened and alienated even the old revolutionary Henry. Meanwhile, the Adams administration, sincerely fearing the French influence on its opponents, had put force of law behind the proscription of some Jacobin agitators. Against this Sedition Act of 1798 Jefferson’s party had hurled every scrap of invective it could lay hands on. Henry’s fear of strife was shared by many men on both sides of the struggle. Nor were demagogues in short supply.

But the really extraordinary tale is this: The first American party struggle, whereby American party factions met in open political warfare, up to and including the great figures of the time, ultimately vindicated the hope announced in The Federalist, that government by “reflection and choice” might at last replace the old curse of government by “force and fraud.” The victory of Jefferson and his Republicans was accepted peacefully.

Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.

In the contest of liberty versus order, Jefferson’s Republican faction stood accused of weighing so heavily to the side of liberty as to devastate public order, much as the French revolt had done, issuing in penury and misery and war. So it is particularly arresting how Jefferson, at his inaugural, addresses himself to the partisans of order. He affirms as his solemn duty, “the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad.” More importantly, he grounds his belief in the vigor of republican government in its respect for law: “I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern.”

And then Jefferson gives us a picture of the free republic bulwarked by the superlative enterprise of free men, pursuing their own vocations under conditions of civic friendship. Men have a right to rise by their own efforts, to enjoy the fruit of their labor. This idea of honest private industry sustaining federal republican government is at the root of the Constitutional teaching of the work from which the Federalist party took its name. The embrace of free enterprise — a commercial republic — is not often permitted to Jefferson, but it was there in his thought as well. Jefferson was never truer to his “we are all Federalists” gesture of reconciliation than when he gave the country this imagery of what America could be:

Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter — with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens — a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

To examine the unique role of this embrace of free enterprise is to draw very near to the true beating heart of the American political tradition. And the poetic notes abound. The propinquity of free enterprise to the great compromises that forged the Republic, these resonances of “pursuits of industry and improvement,” cannot fail to strike the mind of the discerning student of history. It is fitting, for instance, that very last political alliance of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton, all in common cause, was Hamilton’s plan to restore US credit: ground the new Republic on sound finance and let her open for business.

A great deal more could be said on this tremendous topic — it is one rich in interest and instruction. I’ll confine myself to this last thought: In the first American party struggle, the sovereignty of ballots over bullets was vindicated as a workable innovation in the political science of mankind. Liberty and order. The peaceable transition of power between opposing political parties, which today we take for granted though history discloses few comparable examples, was first accomplished on a grand scale here in America. It was accomplished in part by the cooperative influence of commerce and trade upon the politics of men.

Comments (42)

The picture of a Patrick Henry who abjured his own anti-federalism is a striking one and one I hadn't known. An excellent historical corrective footnote.

This from Jefferson is, I must say, excellent:

Still one thing more, fellow-citizens — a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.

I suggest, with caution, that this first "grand scale" accomplishment of acceptance of ballot outcomes by the losers, depended even then upon a social coherence that is little considered today:

entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter

Without those consensus attitudes, the ballots-not-bullets would never have been accepted.

What then should we think of our society today, in which we do NOT have confidence in each other granting "the acquisitions of our own industry", we are not enlightened by a single root religious impulse of Christianity and mostly common views of Godliness, we do not share and extol the virtues of honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and love of man? If Tom J, the proto-libertarian of the Founders, thought that our foundation relied upon these qualities, should we be assured of our continued stability without them?

Yeah, those are the hard questions, Tony. It is likely that we will see the principle tested repeatedly in coming years.

And don't forget that Tom J. wasn't a Christian but a skeptic. Hence his reference to an overriding Providence which is deliberately rather vague, not so specific as the Christian God.

>>What then should we think of our society today, in which we do NOT have confidence in each other granting "the acquisitions of our own industry", we are not enlightened by a single root religious impulse of Christianity and mostly common views of Godliness, we do not share and extol the virtues of honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and love of man?>>

Brad S. Gregory's new book The Unintended Reformation deals with this very question in considerable historical and philosophical detail. Despite a few quibbles here and there, I'd highly recommend it. The WSJ reviewer didn't like it but that's to be expected.

The reason I bring that up is that apparently Jefferson isn't actually saying that a Christian shared culture is a necessity but rather some more general providential theism. Whether he's right or wrong, in any direction (more is needed, less is needed) is a separate question, of course.

Thanks Paul, for an excellent, thought-provoking article.

I'm struck most by how far removed modern politicians are from the noble thoughts that coursed through our founders' minds. I guess what I find most troubling is the number of politicians today who will say whatever it takes to get elected. What a stark contrast to the principled stands of our founders.

This brings me to my new pet peeve - the so-called 'electability' factor. This 'lowest-common-denominator' quality is so often described these days as "the most important attribute in a candidate". When did we start believing that crap? If we live in a representative form of government, shouldn't we always vote for the candidate who best represents us?

I have made a vow that I will never again 'hold my nose' and vote for the 'lesser of two evils'. I will, henceforth, only vote for a candidate who represents my views (even if I have to go third party or write-in).

If we want our representatives to be principled, we must be a principled electorate first.

Sorry for this tangent, but those are the thoughts that this piece brought to mind.

Chucky, thanks for the kind words.

The rhetoric of the Founding Age alone puts our pigmy pols these days to shame.

I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree strongly with your pet peeve, in one sense at least. Sure, electability is a vapid and feeble virtue conjured by modern media operatives. But reacting to this by renouncing coalition politics (as it seems you are prepared to do) is hardly the course of action recommended by our tradition. The government of reflection and choice absolutely depends on the defeated minority in an election (even a primary election) acquiescing in the victorious majority's triumph. The whole business breaks down, under democratic conditions, when defeated minorities start stamping their feet and taking their ball home. That abets the rise of government by force and fraud (which may well have democratic forms, in the sense that the majority just works its will by whatever means the strength of numbers lends to it).

There is a very real sense in which almost every election must be a vote for the lesser of two evils. Many of the state constitutional conventions embraced the Philadelphia Constitution precisely in a "lesser of two evils" frame of mind. If you look at their recommending documents, they are actually abounding in straight-talkin' criticism. Virginia made Madison promise to introduce revisions immediately upon the opening of the First Congress, so that great State could not have been fully satisfied with what she voted for.

Or again, consider Hamilton's great achievements in grounding the early Republic on sound finance. His contemporaries had huge doubts about the scheme, and in many cases would later embrace the most slanderous charges of malfeasance against him; but in the end they compromised and grudgingly signed on to the Credit Bill.

Note: I am not unalterably opposed to third parties. So long as a third party vote is not a meaningless protest vote, an effusion of frustration, it may well be a wise choice. There have been times in our history when third parties mattered. Right now that it not true; nor are their any prospects for that fact changing; but who knows what the future holds?

Hi Paul,

I can't agree with you. Such coalitions may have been productive in the age of the founders, but today they seem to always result in more government. It doesn't matter Democrat or Republican, the two party system we have today is like a zebra - different colored stripes but still the same animal. I don't see that changing unless the electorate itself changes. As long as we're willing to accept one version or the other of the status-quo, we're forever doomed to the creeping growth of government and the slow and steady erosion of our liberty. I thought the Tea Party movement was going to make a big difference, but alas the majority of the 'Tea Party Republicans' caved on principle and fell in line with party leadership when it mattered most.

My vote may very well be merely a protest vote, but my conscience will no longer allow me to vote for candidates with whom I disagree on a fundamental level. If that helps put someone in power who I disagree with more - then so be it. I'm prepared to wait until a political party embraces my way of thinking (at least on major fundamental points) before I support that party again. This may seem radical (and perhaps it is) but unless a political party completely loses the support of the people, that party will not change in a fundamental way. They may nibble around the edges, they may say the words we want to hear, but they won't change until votes stop coming in and power slips from their grip.

In the immortal words of Dave Mustaine: "It's still 'we the people' right?"

It doesn't matter Democrat or Republican, the two party system we have today is like a zebra - different colored stripes but still the same animal. I don't see that changing unless the electorate itself changes.

Chucky, your point is well taken, but it need not be the case that the ONLY line of attack against the Demopublicans is to vote for that third (or fourth) candidate who has no realistic chance of winning.

Imagine, for a moment, that we consolidate every three congressional districts (in a state that has at least 3) into one district, and instead of seating only the highest vote getter, we seat in office the 3 candidates with the highest votes. We would automatically not be stuck with only Repubocrats, we would (after a cycle or 2) probably get 5 or 6 parties. (Over many states, we would probably have 10 or more parties, but some would just be splinters.) Just like Madison intended. And in order to rule effectively they would have to form coalitions about some important issues, while remaining distinct in their own vision.

If that helps put someone in power who I disagree with more - then so be it. I'm prepared to wait until a political party embraces my way of thinking (at least on major fundamental points) before I support that party again. This may seem radical (and perhaps it is) but unless a political party completely loses the support of the people, that party will not change in a fundamental way.

Would it not be necessary, to fulfill your responsibilities, to ALSO do more to ensure that the party "completely lose the support of the people" than merely not vote for them? That action alone seems disproportionate to the need of the republic and the nature of the vote. It seems (to me) to be an empty action unless accompanied by a much more involved program, such as (for example) trying to get a new party moving.

Such coalitions may have been productive in the age of the founders, but today they seem to always result in more government. . . . In the immortal words of Dave Mustaine: "It's still 'we the people' right?"

It is. It's just that we want more government.

Why do you say that fundamental disagreement absolves you of the elector's duty. So you disagree with both candidates -- big whoop. Were you ever promised a candidate who agreed with you? Not on the national level; perhaps at the local and state level. I wonder when voting participation as a citizen became dependent on individual comfort with the presented options.

But despite the fact of disagreement, there are degrees of error. Confiscatory taxation is an evil; but straight confiscation of property is worse. So if a candidate proposes to raise your taxes while his opponent says he means to appropriate your house, it would seem that the patriot is obliged to vote for the lesser disagreement, right?

To use the term "Commercial republic" is an oxymoron. Socrates in Plato's Republic says to the effect, "Where money is prized, virtue is despised". All of the classical republics were not commercial but martial. They were built by warrior races, the Dorians and the Romans (The Romans were a mixed people, Latins, Dorians and Etruscans.) Both the Doric Republics and the Early Roman Republic had sumptuary laws. Does America have sumtuary laws? No.

Liberty vs Order? That is a false dichotomy. Liberty destroys order and no organism, organization, not to mention society must have order in order to exist.

With Amerika collapsing all around you, don't you think it time to give up on the so-called "Enlightenment" teachings? The so-called "Enlightenment" was an Atheist movement in essence which made common effort with deists, Jews and Protestants all in a goal of destroying Christendom. Modern (pseudo-) Republicansim was a vehicle for anti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism. What are Catholics doing upholding modern republicanism for?

Why do you say that fundamental disagreement absolves you of the elector's duty.

Now, hold on just a minute, Paul. I wasn't going to get involved earlier because I didn't know if you wanted this line of discussion to continue in the thread. But aren't you overstating a bit here, and in the rest of the comment? Are you seriously proposing that each citizen is morally obligated to vote in every presidential election? Because that's what it is starting to sound like. Chucky & I have plenty of disagreements. I have no doubt that he and I would draw our lines differently and would, certainly, view different people as candidates we would want to vote for. That's the nature of democracy, including representative democracy! People have different priorities for their candidates. I'm strongly inclined to agree with him that lines must be drawn and that voters have not only a right but a duty to draw lines. And it sounds as though either you don't agree and think one must _always_ vote for one of the viable candidates presented or as though (though I'm hesitant to attribute this to you) you are taking it upon yourself to decide for others where the line must be drawn and when they have a duty to vote for "the lesser evil." I stand by everything I said in this post: "What is a Vote."

http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2008/05/what_is_a_vote.html

Alright, that was a bit overstated. Let me restate this way: the American political tradition presupposes a voting public that approaches the duties of self-government with some detachment. Those duties are hardly exhausted by voting; and that detachment must be cultivated in light of this fallen world. A man called to serve on a Grand Jury may well have reservations about how the police and prosecution handled a case, but he still votes for a True Bill of indictment because the burden of proof is probable cause not beyond reasonable doubt. Judges frequently refuse to accept hung jury complaints, ordering the empaneled folks to debate longer and arrive at a verdict. A legislator, meanwhile, might end up voting for amendments in a very peculiar pattern, out of strategic considerations (I'm reminded of the brilliant if infuriated trick the Dems used to sink a tough immigration bill some years ago: they quietly amended "illegal presence" from a misdemeanor to the level of a felony, precisely to drive away moderate votes and defeat the bill. It's absurd to say that the authors of this stratagem favored a felony illegal presence statute.)

There is always the option of checking out on the whole business. A boycott of democratic form as such is a defensible if severe position to adopt. Most cases I've observed of this rejection, however, are not very well thought out. Often it's just an understandable expression of frustration. But in truth to say that you can't in good conscience participate in the vital activity of voting our rulers, is very close to saying the American tradition has failed.

Hypotheticals could be spun out at great length. I can't be certain of their utility. What I can say is this: I've said I'll never vote for a pro-choice candidate if there is anything I can do to avoid it. But imagine a contest between mayoral candidates, both of whom are pretty standard liberals, but one of whom proposes to jack up property taxes to confiscatory levels in order to shore up the city's extremely generous pension fund, while the other proposes a smaller tax combined with reduction of benefits. (A brief google search of the condition of city pension funds, and the supreme privilege of the public sector workers enjoying them, will disabuse anyone of the idea that such a thing is implausible.) I don't know that I could sit that one out. I don't know that I could respect neighborhood who did. "The city undertakes to plunder us and the only weapon of defense you possess you set aside in a fit of pique?")

Similar examples could be made of crime policy: One can hardly begrudge the New York conservatives who voted for Giuliani because they expected him to actually restore order in their city, despite his ample faults as a man and candidate.

Given the remoteness of a single voter to the presidential election, boycotts of the presidential level strike me as the most defensible. But even there, the country is so closely divided that (as we've seen) even a few votes can swing the thing. We've got about 8-12% of the electorate ("independents") who will swing for or against candidates on the most superficial of whims. The particular targets of humor the night before on the Daily Show might move the election. If we cannot count on our informed and settled people working to offset this, then we're basically marking the ruin and dissolution of the American Republic, are we not?

As you know, Paul, the entire discussion about where to draw the line and whether one should ever vote for a Giuliani-type candidate is a long discussion on which much can be said on both sides. If I were to have that discussion with someone considering voting for Giuliani for mayor years ago I would at least point out that his mayoral popularity was not unrelated to his later presidential attempt. A person's political career is a series of steps, and a vote for Mr. I-love-abortion Republican for mayor today has implicatoins for his national political career and popularity tomorrow. Moreover, various pro-abortion New York City mayors have imposed horrid things like requirements that all medical schools in the city provide abortion training. It's not as though local government has nothing to do with abortion. Things can always get worse.

I would say that the inclination to sit out national elections is partly a result of the increasing and terrifying involvement of the federal government in incredibly fundamental issues. Only slavery comes even close in the original republic, and that was only _one_ issue. Now it's homosexual "marriage," education of our children, abortion, embryonic stem-cell research--on and on. Matters of absolutely fundamental morality, metaphysical definition, vast sociological importance. The Founders could scarcely have imagined it.

Does this conduce to the breakdown of the Republic itself? You bet it does. But that isn't the fault of the person who sits out the election! Blame the architects of Roe v. Wade and of myriad federal laws. Blame the liberals who have uniformly been the aggressors in the culture wars and who lust after power at the federal level to impose their agenda on all of us. And to a large extent have gotten it.

Even when it comes to slavery, I wouldn't have blamed an abolitionist who refused to vote for a pro-slavery candidate!

So I think ultimately what is required is a lot of respect and tolerance among conservatives. Those who refused to vote for McCain got a heck of a lot of vituperation. It's not like we didn't hear ad infinitum the arguments for voting for him. It's not like we were given an easy ride of it. And the vituperation hardly helped the cohesion either of the country or of the Right.

Extreme comments can go in the other direction as well. I would _strongly_ disagree with a conservative who voted for Rudy Giuliani. I would be disappointed in him. Just as I was disappointed in the conservatives who danced in the street over the election of "I'm-proud-of-my-mostly-naked-photo," pro-abortion Scott Brown. But I would hope that I would not be vituperative. We would have to learn to discuss it and move on. Or not discuss it and move on, as the case may be. Not fill enough pixels in a comment thread to make a man go blind with bashing on each other.

That seems to me to be the only thing we can do as conservatives--respect each other as people as much as we are able while disagreeing with each others' decisions on these matters.

Yeah. Fair enough. But -- "Even when it comes to slavery, I wouldn't have blamed an abolitionist who refused to vote for a pro-slavery candidate!" Would you have blamed an abolitionist for refusing to vote for Lincoln, because Lincoln confined his appeal to stopping the spread of slavery?

Keep in mind that Giuliani's presidential campaign went nowhere. It was an embarrassment. He wouldn't back off his social leftism and it ruined his chances. So the primary worked out, at least in that instance.

Would you have blamed an abolitionist for refusing to vote for Lincoln, because Lincoln confined his appeal to stopping the spread of slavery?

Almost certainly not. But as you very well know, the whole "purist vs. incrementalist" debate is a many-faceted and lengthy thing. Abortion is a notch up the ladder even from slavery, bad though slavery was. And we need to make a distinction (which pro-lifers never seem to do anymore) between someone who would vote for laws with abortion exceptions because they would improve matters, on the one hand, and someone who thinks there *must be* an exception for rape and incest, on the other. The former person is an incrementalist. The latter person is seriously morally confused on the concrete issue of murdering children because of the way they were conceived.

If Lincoln had come out with a lot of rhetoric about how vastly important he thought the "right to slavery" was in the slave states and how he would never, ever do anything to infringe that "liberty" on the part of slave owners, because he really believed in it, etc., that might have been a different matter.

Just to be clear... I never said I would 'sit out' an election. I will always vote! I may vote third party or write-in, but I will always cast a ballot.

And Tony, it does not matter to me anymore whether someone says the candidate I support "has no realistic chance of winning". That's the mentality that got us into the 'two party' mindset in the first place! I think your idea of combining congressional districts and seating the top three or four candidates is a good one though. You're talking about more of a Parliamentary form of government. That's a pretty radical change and may require a constitutional amendment (I don't know.) I've often thought about trying to start a popular movement to get everyone to vote for a third party candidate---any third party candidate---for one election cycle just to clean house and send a message to Washington (I even tried to start one of those chain emails once!) I still think it's a good idea.

I will admit that my position is definitely one of frustration - one based on thirty years of single party support. I fairly innocently decided to support a candidate in this election cycle for the simple reason that I felt he was the only candidate I could trust to actually shrink government. I thought (at the time) that he was a bit of a radical, but I also felt that that was exactly what this country needed. I came to my decision thoughtfully and honestly and I was (and still am) baffled by the way the party I had loved and supported all those years treated with utter contempt the man I supported - one who, I felt, actually embodied the core principles that party claimed to be about. When they did that to him, they did it to me! Perhaps I'm leaving the party, perhaps the party has left me, either way it's not amicable. So yes my vote will be a protest vote from now on. Maybe there will eventually be enough of us to actually change something. I can only hope.

I'm sorry for hijacking this thread though!

Chucky, you misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that voting for a candidate Z who has no chance of winning is simply wrong. (I am particularly disgusted with the stupid theory that doing so is "throwing away" an implicit vote for X who might have had a right to your vote if only he were a decent candidate, or, still more illogically, your vote for Z is "effectively a vote for Y because it is not a vote for X".) I am fine with voting for such a no-chance candidate, in some circumstances at least. Namely, when the other candidates are so evil, or so wrongheaded in their basic understanding of political reality that voting for them would have been wrong anyway. I tend to think that voting for a not-a-chance candidate because he is 96% right instead of 70% or 80% right in policies (as is one of the major candidates) would be a pretty poor approach to how to use your vote - so poor as to verge on irresponsible.

With Lydia, I think a vote "means" something more than merely being in favor of a bare preponderance of his stated policy plans or objectives that you think he will be successful in. We elect a person, not a program of policies. There is always more to the art of ruling than can be captured in a single list of 10 or 20 specific planned laws. When we elect a person, we perforce are asking him to take on all those other choices that have not been stated up front, that cannot be fully anticipated. In addition, we expect him to set out to achieve his stated policies in a manner that is coherent with a body of underlying beliefs, attitudes, view of human nature, understanding of compromise, etc. For these reasons, we look to a candidate's character and his perspective about how reality fits together. Voting for a candidate, then, should at the very least imply that you think he is basically trustworthy about his major plans and policies, and also that he is basically right in his main understandings about human nature and political order. If he can't live up to that minimal standard, he doesn't really deserve your vote.

My main point was that finding that both (or all, in those rare elections where more than 2 people have a chance) main candidates are too wrong to vote for should not lead one to thinking "then I won't vote for anyone" was a sufficient response all by itself, that it sufficiently spoke to the political order, or that it conveyed any effective sense that the parties had "completely lost the support of the people". Voting for a third candidate even if he has no chance is better than simply not voting, but it might still be insufficient. Political responsibility might lie in a more pro-active position, like actually volunteering on behalf of the 3rd candidate, or at least in promoting his cause with friends and neighbors. In general, voting should stand as something like the last step that you take in promoting a political outcome for an election, not the only step.

Tony:

I tend to think that voting for a not-a-chance candidate because he is 96% right instead of 70% or 80% right in policies (as is one of the major candidates) would be a pretty poor approach to how to use your vote - so poor as to verge on irresponsible.

The question is: who decides whether a candidate is a 'not-a-chance candidate'? You? Me? The media? A political party?

To be honest, when there were still 8 or 10 candidates in the Republican primary, I would have labeled Rick Santorum as a 'not-a-chance candidate'. He's gone out there and won lots of votes though! So I would have been wrong if the one reason I decided not to vote for him was because I didn't think he had a chance of winning.

That is why, from now on, in the situation you describe, I will always vote for the candidate who is 96% right over the one who is 70% or 80% right. Nobody can say, in any definitive way, prior to an election that candidate X 'has no chance'. We are fools if we allow that type of thinking to dissuade us from voting our conscience.

Chucky, it is regularly proposed that voting in primaries is a different sort of activity than voting in the general election. There is a different dynamic involved, a different process, and a different kind of outcome. Many people think that you SHOULD vote your heart in the primaries (even if totally unlikely), and then you take probable outcomes into account in the general. For one thing, even 10% and 12% vote getters in the early primaries help shape the rest of the primary debate, and even in losing eventually, someone like Santorum or Gingrich will have enough of a voice at the convention (or later) to sway important decisions.

We are fools if we allow that type of thinking to dissuade us from voting our conscience.

You might be more cautious about using the phrase "voting your conscience." In my example, neither the 96% nor the 70% candidate need be thought of as someone for whom voting is "against my conscience". If a candidate agrees with me on 70% of the policy options, but 100% of the basic principles of politics and human nature, then I can well vote for him in good conscience. Conscience provides more then merely testimony to general principles, it (should) also stake a position on the prudential aspects of an action. Prudence requires taking into account things like probable outcomes, as well as scandal, reputation, integrity, etc. I could theoretically vote for my cousin Bob who is incredibly smart, very knowledgeable about politics, and totally upright. But there is no humanly reasonable prospect of his winning (since practically no portion of the population even knows his name), and so voting for him is unreasonable and violates the conscience. (I don't say the same of real third-party candidates, by the way. A small chance of winning is not logically or prudentially comparable to "no humanly reasonable prospect" of winning.)

I understand your position Tony and agree with it to a point. My position though is based on my own experience: I've had a lot of people tell me that they'd vote for my candidate except that they don't think he has a chance of winning. If everyone who felt that way voted for that candidate anyway, he probably would win!

I'm saying vote your conscience no matter what. If more people do that, at least the true level of support for certain ideas (as personafied by the candidates who hold them) will be known.

There is a different dynamic involved, a different process, and a different kind of outcome. Many people think that you SHOULD vote your heart in the primaries (even if totally unlikely), and then you take probable outcomes into account in the general.

Well put, Tony. What I'd add to this is that once you've participated in the Primary (which I take to mean doing more than just voting; most likely it also involves at least some local efforts at persuading) you're under a pretty heavy responsibility to stick with it through the General. Short of insurmountable differences on issues of sufficient gravity, which must unquestionably exceed mere frustration or personal mistrust, you ought to play on through the whole game once you agree to join it.

In the American political tradition, we must remember, the acquiescence of the defeated minority comprises one of the truly founding innovations. The defeated minority in any election is hardly absolved of civic obligation. We can see the outlines of this notion, later euphemized as "loyal opposition," in Burke's early treatise Thoughts on the Present Discontents, but it's full flower is not visible until the Federalists accepted their defeat to Jefferson and his Republicans (whether Jefferson would have likewise accepted defeat is a counterfactual question of considerable interest) in 1800.

But still another implication rises from a close reading of The Federalist, alongside the record of the early Congresses. (If you ever see this book at a used sale, buy it immediately. Or maybe the local library has it.) That is the idea of the super-majority coalition of opposition. Our progressives detest this feature, at least verbally; occasionally almost everyone shows impatience with it. But the machinery by which large oppositional coalitions may work their (negative) will, by defeating apparently popular legislation, is another of the grand innovations of the American tradition.

In our time we have seen the successful work of just this sort of coalition on the issue of immigration, where successive right-wing and left-wing governments have failed to effect their desire for expansion and liberalization of the rules. Only ruthless highhandedness confuted a similar oppositional coalition on health care, and the compromises necessary to overcome that coalition may possibly sink the law in the end.

It is of course true that the particularly American innovations on representative government have been breaking down. One must search much harder to find these victories of the super-majority coalition of righteous opposition. In the past they were more prominent.

One reason it is breaking down is that so many of the nation's best and most independent minds are checking out.

Perhaps this final coalition of radical opposition will complete the breakdown, and then we can get back to history's long sad record of government by force and fraud.

once you've participated in the Primary (which I take to mean doing more than just voting; most likely it also involves at least some local efforts at persuading) you're under a pretty heavy responsibility to stick with it through the General.

And your argument for this, as I understand it (on the assumption that the succeeding paragraphs are an argument for it) is approximately this:

1) The principle of "loyal opposition" and the "acquiescence of the defeated minority" is very important to America, and voting in the general for whoever gets the nomination is a way to participate in this tradition of loyal opposition.

2) Large oppositional coalitions are important in American life and history, and voting for whoever gets the nomination in the general is a way of joining such a coalition.

Now, I actually agree that mere frustration (personal distrust might be a different matter) is trivial and not a reason for refusing to vote for the person who gets the nomination in the general. On personal distrust, it depends on how rationally based that personal distrust is.

However, I don't agree that these arguments are good arguments for the conclusion, if they were intended to be. Take the acquiescence of the defeated minority. Your main post itself shows that that principle wasn't originally about the defeated minority turning around almost immediately and _voting_ for the person they just lost to! It had to do with something much more fundamental: Not starting a revolution. Not literally fighting. Not engaging in sedition. Things like that.

As to the second, coalitions can be very useful but must be joined or not entirely on a case-by-case basis. It seems to me pretty weak to start from some general premise about the importance of coalitions as an attempt to support any specific coalition. That would be, I don't know, like starting by talking about how helpful corporations can be for the economic health of a country and using that as an argument for buying stock in a particular corporation.

Well, the oppositional coalition point applies more naturally to congressional elections. I should have been clear about that.

Presidential general elections, in the form of these vast plebescitary media events, have only a distant connection to the tradition I'm speaking of. Interestingly enough, this plebescitary feature (probably deriving from a cut-rate version of Rousseau's General Will) was an innovation pushed for years by early post-war liberals. They detested the localism and messiness of congressional elections, and were forever despairing of the Republic under the authority of Congresses selected from this messy localism. Far better, according to these savants, to have policy hinge on occasional expressions of popular will, vaguely interpreted from the results of the national presidential election, and then promptly handed over to experts to implement.

The point about Primary voters taking their ball and going home for the General arises from my own experience watching recent instances of this, the vast majority of which (I suspect) are the products of that frustration and personal mistrust I spoke of. The most common and infuriating pattern of this stuff is the "moderate" or "centrist" who makes a lot of noise about fiscal problems (debt, deficits and entitlements), while complaining about the supposed GOP "obsession" with social issues. Then, when a fiscal hawk who is also a social con (the two views tend to go hand-in-hand, though centrists never notice that) gains ground, this moderate suddenly abandons his stated budgetary concerns out of fear of social conservatism, and starts making even more noise about sitting out the General election in protest.

I'm so tired of these temper tantrums.

Paul,

Could you give us the title of that book you tried to link to above? The link isn't working for me.

Then, when a fiscal hawk who is also a social con (the two views tend to go hand-in-hand, though centrists never notice that) gains ground, this moderate suddenly abandons his stated budgetary concerns out of fear of social conservatism, and starts making even more noise about sitting out the General election in protest.

Yes, that definitely would not make sense. And it wouldn't make sense in the other direction either. If I try to imagine a fiscal anti-capitalist (perhaps someone very sympathetic to some form of distributism) who is also a strong social conservative and pushes the so-con issues in the primary, I think he should be willing to vote for a so-con who runs in the general "even if" the so-con is not a distributist!

Or, a more realistic scenario: I myself have again and again been willing to vote for someone who was more of a fiscal liberal and less of a fiscal small-government type than I would prefer on the basis of social issues. The die-hard libertarians always blame this, of course, as unprincipled. But it's really a matter of deciding _which_ principles are the most important. Even my vote for Rick Santorum in the primary was of this nature. It's not like he was nearly as much of a die-hard small-government type as I could have wished, but that wasn't as important to me.

The thing about coalitions is that the people who participate in them are a) not abandoning their principles by participating, and b) attempting to attain a mutually beneficial outcome with those with whom they coalesce.

It's the opposite of compromise - which is to abandon some of your principles in order to acheive some lesser result.

Coalitions are honorable, compromise is shameful (in my opinion.)

It's the opposite of compromise - which is to abandon some of your principles in order to acheive some lesser result.

Ahhh, Chucky, I hate to tell you this, but your notion of what compromise is just plain erroneous. The word encompasses equally well giving up minor points to win major points, as it does giving up major points to win minor ones. Because the word itself is neutral to the question of whether what you are giving up is major or minor, all the word references is losing part of your goal to get another part. "Part" is neutral.

The phrase you are thinking of is "compromise your principles". And yes, in that case, when you compromise basic positions for peripheral stuff, that's bad.

But it still leaves open a hierarchy of principles and giving up lesser principles to gain more important ones. Case in point: The right to life is a more basic principle than the right to commercial freedom, and so I can be willing to vote for a totally committed pro-life candidate who mucks up on some commerce issue, even though both are matters of principle.

The thing about coalitions is that the people who participate in them are a) not abandoning their principles by participating, and b) attempting to attain a mutually beneficial outcome with those with whom they coalesce.

I don't think that's accurate either. What if you discern that you must join with a coalition that is largely impelled by Machiavellians? I mean, if you were a faithful Catholic in Paris in 1793, even a cynical bishop of dissolute mores and observable corruption might easily win your loyalty over a pack of fanatic Jacobin designing to plunder and enslave you. Or, to take a more recent example, remember the Louisiana "vote for the crook, it's important" campaign, that year when it looked like David Duke might actually win?

This idea that we can avoid making political judgments amounting to a "lesser of two evils" criterion seems to me parlous fantasy. We have to keep in mind the classical liberal "great principle of self-preservation," in Madison's phrase, "which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim."

I don't think that's accurate either.

Do you not think you could characterize the cases you give as "not abandoning one's principles" and attempting to obtain a beneficial outcome? If not, then how are they defensible? Surely, Paul, you aren't saying that it is always necessary at some point to abandon one's principles! Wouldn't it be better to say to Chucky, as Tony says, that one needs to have a hierarchy of principles, not abandon the really crucial ones, but be willing to compromise on the negotiable ones?

A hierarchy of principles is a good way to look at it, yes. But still, were I forced by ugly necessity vote for a corrupt Democrat to stop the ascension to power of a racial supremacist, I'd still feel pretty dirty about my vote. A lot of very important principles would have been rather peremptorily set aside.

But still, were I forced by ugly necessity vote for a corrupt Democrat to stop the ascension to power of a racial supremacist, I'd still feel pretty dirty about my vote.

This seems to imply that you would take the politicians at face value when they merely talk about their views. It's quite possible that a racial supremacist may openly loathe blacks but institute policies which are objectively better for blacks (stronger self-defense laws, lower taxes, general opposition to corruption) than a corrupt Democrat. In fact, if a politician's main flaw is that he hates men because of their race but is otherwise a pretty clean guy, you might be inviting far more harm due to the fact that corruption is rarely compartmentalized.

** other than that, I agree with you Paul. At some point, everyone compromises themselves in politics. Though the fake choice between evils we've had since 1992 in Presidential elections is why in high school I told my teacher that I was joining the Cthulhu for President campaign because if I had to make a false choice between two essentially equal evils, I'd rather make a protest vote.

Uh, Mike, there was a specific historical context for my remark. Do you have a comment on that context, or would you prefer vague abstractions?

But still, were I forced by ugly necessity vote for a corrupt Democrat to stop the ascension to power of a racial supremacist, I'd still feel pretty dirty about my vote. A lot of very important principles would have been rather peremptorily set aside.

Yes, perhaps they would be. Are you insisting that such decisions are definitely justifiable? Are you saying that we must be prepared peremptorily to set aside very important principles?

Frankly, I am pretty darned skeptical about a phrase like "ugly necessity."

In other words, as I hinted above, perhaps voting for a Democrat crook to stop David Duke was _not_ defensible. Is that some sort of shocking conclusion?

I guess if you think there's some kind of "necessity" in such a situation you'd really be in a dilemma if the person running against David Duke were not "merely" a Democrat crook but, say, a black supremacist. Maybe someone touting the ideas of the Nation of Islam. At least I _hope_ that would be seen as a dilemma or even a counterexample and that we wouldn't just be expected to conclude that stopping a white supremacist from being elected is more important than stopping a black supremacist.

I am to lazy to look up who duke's opponent was. I was pointing out that having racist beliefs does not make a man worse than someone known to be corrupt. Our current president is proof you can be a racist and still govern equally. That he is governing this country off a cliff is beside the point. I doubt he'd be much better regardless of his vows on race.

I guess what I object to is the mindset that there are always only two alternatives and that our choice can only be between two 'evils'. I think that every election has several so-called "fringe" candidates that more perfectly embody the views of many Americans than the two "mainstream" candidates do. But these Americans have been brainwashed (for want of a better term) into believing that, since these "fringe" candidates "have no chance", they'd better vote for the milquetoast, middle-of-the-road politician who will ultimately satisfy no one.

What I am advocating is voting for the candidate who most closely represents YOU - even if they "have no chance". If everybody did that, some of these lesser candidates might suddenly gain traction and we might actually witness the end of the two party duopoly.

It might be 'pie-in-the-sky' but that's what I mean by "changing the electorate".

I think that every election has several so-called "fringe" candidates that more perfectly embody the views of many Americans than the two "mainstream" candidates do.

Simply not true, Chucky. My state generally does not admit write-in votes, and more often than not there are exactly two votes on the ballot. Your choices usually are: The Dem, The Repub, or Don't Vote.

That's at the general election. Primaries, and drives to PUT another candidate on the ballot, are another story. There, you have tons more options, and you should pursue them.

But when we have tried those, and (often) have failed to get a really good candidate on the ballot, then my typical choices are A, B, or don't vote. And as far as I can tell, refusing to vote is often insupportable as an exercise of political prudence - unless both (all?) candidates actually available to vote for are truly bad choices, are truly opposed to a number of basic principles of human nature and politics. Prudence is the virtue of dealing with the actual choices before us, not choices that we wish we had, and taking the best of those real options. Given the secret nature of the ballot, voting for nobody generally cannot "make a statement" that outvoices the statement made by those who do vote, even if that is only 20% of the electorate. And we can always "make a statement" far more clearly outside of the ballot box by actually _stating_ that we don't like either one, though we oppose A even more fiercely than B.

Well I've only ever voted in my state - and we have a spot for a write-in for every position on the ballot. There are also usually more than two parties represented - so that's all I had to go by... You however, with only two options, would still (I assume) always vote for the candidate that best represents your views. So my argument stands. We just happen to have more options in my state than you do.

I agree that there are a lot of other ways that are more productive than just voting. I've been doing more along those lines in this election than I ever did before. But it ultimately comes down to votes. I will, without exception, from now on, vote for the candidate that most closely represents my views. I'm not going to listen to "electability" arguments anymore, nor will I ever be dissuaded when people say that a candidate "has no chance".

That's it. My conscience is clear on this.

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