It appears that many intelligent people think I’m completely wrong . Still, in spite of the very sensible responses I’ve read, I’ve not yet been convinced to walk back my argument. But it seems that I should clarify it a little.
I write this post from a coffee shop, and the young man sitting next to me has a “Dissent is Patriotic” bumper sticker on his laptop. The slogan is almost entirely true , but still not quite as true as most people think it is. Loyalty has to have consequences for a man’s behavior if it’s going to be a concept worth talking about. In other words, if loyalty is a big enough tent to include the man who bombs a government building out of protest and the woman who enlists in the Marines as long as they are both motivated by love for America as they understand it , then I don’t know why anyone would want to bother with the word in the first place. It’s not enough to feel loyal; you need to act like it. (Or you can toss loyalty entirely in favor of universal free-agency; I definitely respect that conclusion, as long as you understand the consequences that necessarily follow from it.)
The worry with my kind of loyalty, of course, is that it can be abused. I’d be a fool to deny it. Conor and his allies are concerned about a world in which parties use their authority to bigfoot all dissent, democratic dialogue becomes impoverished, and our elected officials run roughshod over conservative principles because they know they can get away with it. I’m worried about these things tooI just think that a robust understanding of party loyalty is the best way to avoid them.
I’ll preface my explanation with a comparison. The phrase “imperfect analogy” is too generous for this one, but I’ll run with it for the moment on the assumption that everyone understands that there are important ways in which it doesn’t work. So, with that in mind: one question I remember getting asked a lot when I lived with Protestants was, “Helen, what would you do if the Pope told you to [pick your favorite ridiculous thought experiment]?” The cheap answer (the one I gave to anyone who was clearly asking the question for the sake of snark) is, “Yes, bad loyalty is bad, but I’d prefer to risk bad loyalty than live in a world with no loyalty, i.e. a world where all relationships are (ugh!) contractual.” In this case, though, I’ll make a more aggressive response: a backdrop of implicit loyalty makes good-faith argument easier .
Conor, Larison, and Sullivan all seem to prefer negotiations in which both sides understand that either of them could walk away from the table at any time. My experience with that attitude is that it inevitably infuses the negotiation with mutual suspicion, craven bargaining, and unapologetic self-interest. It’s bad insofar as it turns the two sides into self-interested businessmen rather than conscientious public servants or well-intentioned truth-seekers, and especially bad in the case of the Republican Party insofar as I’m not sure that a negotiation based on self-interest will get committed conservatives what we want. What can we threaten them with? I’m not as sure as Conor seems to be that electoral loss is even a club in our bag. I happen genuinely to prefer negotiations in which both sides understand that they’re in it together and proceed from there, but that matters less given that I think the alternative (i.e. voters, pundits, and politicians pit various well-thought-out and deeply-felt positions against each other in a fair fight) isn’t really on the table.
I’ll admit that my perspective on this question is shaped by the fact that I was raised to take loyalty very seriously. Godfrey Cheshire, another Southern-born writer living in New York, recently released a documentary about the Cheshire family plantation and his family’s efforts to reconcile family pride with the claims of their black relatives, who descended from a liaison between one of their ancestors and a slave. The best sentence written about his documentary is this : “Arguably, Cheshire could have made his movie stronger by digging a little deeper, but it’s asking a lot of a good North Carolina boy that he try to capture on film a racial dust-up at his cousin’s party with his mama on the premises.” I believe in an artist’s responsibility to present the truth, but I also agree with the reviewer; just something to keep in mind.
On that note, I’ll tell a quick personal story. A political disagreement (over progressive taxation, I think) with a liberal friend of mine had evolved into a full-blown fight, but nothing we couldn’t get over. Then, in an epic stroke of bad timing, she said to a mutual friend that “at some point between graduating from Yale and being a full-time political operative for the DNC, I think it will stop being okay for me to have conservative friends.”
I demanded that she explain herself. Was it that she’d be ashamed to have right-wing friends? Was it that she couldn’t imagine having anything in common with a conservative, and hadn’t we already disproved that hypothesis? Or was it as simple as a secret belief that all conservatives are cold-hearted and hate-filled?
As livid as I was, her answer absolutely satisfied me: “I could never be friends with anyone who worked or wrote for the other side because being someone’s friend doesn’t just mean spending time with them and enjoying their conversation. It means being there for them. I never want to be in a position where my response to ‘I had a terrible day at work’ has to be ‘Good, I’m glad.’ That’s not what a friend does.”
The moral here is that some people think that keeping any and all disagreement on the table deepens friendship; I think that’s true for most kinds of disagreement (my friends are the ones I trust to slap me in the face when I need it, for instance), but in cases like my friend’s hypothetical, it cheapens it. Friendship, like loyalty, entails responsibilities , and you need to know what you’re getting into when you start calling yourself a friend. Or a conservative.