Defending My Side

One sure way to undercut your credibility is to defend something you don’t believe in. While that sounds fairly obvious, I see this principle violated daily. I’m sometimes tempted to violate it myself. I’ll explain.

There’s a difference between the principles of your party, and the people who carry the banner for those principles. The former endure. The latter rise and fall with the character of the people involved.

However, because politics has narrowed every question to a binary choice, we often feel compelled to pick a position that is not ours because the leaders of our team have already made the choice for us. Any doubts we have about it get shoved aside for the greater good of winning the election or backing “our guy.”

Perhaps this is fine if life is nothing more than a series of binary-choice elections. But when you’re trying to persuade someone that your principles mean something, and that they are better than any other set of ideas, being an ask-no-questions team player severely undercuts your ability to persuade.

Let me qualify what follows by saying that if you truly believe everything that your party and its politicians believe, then go for it. But if, like most people, you sometimes find yourself in disagreement with your own tribe and its leaders, or if someone on your team behaves in a way that’s inconsistent with your principles, then you do yourself no favors by supporting that behavior for the sake of the team. It’s not good for the cause either.

Political parties are, by nature, aspirational. None lives up to its ideals. Parties are like people. Sometimes we act according to our principles, and sometimes we don’t. The problem for your WinSome mission comes when you find yourself defending the indefensible.

That’s because people can tell when you’re saying something you don’t really believe.

This can happen, for example, when the president for whom you voted does something that you find stupid or reprehensible. The temptation is to justify the president’s action because he’s better than the alternative, or because you don’t want to give the other party ammunition with which to destroy you in the next election. While this is totally understandable within the context of electoral politics, it’s a slippery slope with regard to morality and ethics.

Part of being a credible voice to your friends comes in acknowledging that “my guy” and “my party” don’t always act in ways that are consistent with my views. In fact, they occasionally (read: often) violate the tenets of their own stated views.

Since this is true, does it mean that you have to be a fair-weather partisan, or a backstabber of your own ideological allies? Not at all. It merely means you need to have the integrity to avoid defending the indefensible. You need to be honest about when your views diverge from what’s happening in the news.

Disagreement does not equal disavowal. When you state honestly your differences with your own party or candidate, you gain crediblity in the eyes of your opponents. If you can’t bring yourself to criticize your team from time-to-time, your credibility sinks. I’m not suggesting you go out of your way to find areas of disagreement with your party, but just to be honest when differences exist.

Warning: My experience as an “internet pundit” demonstrates that when you don’t jump on the bandwagon and proclaim “my party right or wrong” you will come under attack…from your own nominal allies. This attack will, in all likelihood, be more vicious and personal than anything you’ve seen from “the other side.” You will be branded a traitor, and no matter what you say after that in support of your own party and its politicians, some people will never let you live down what they saw as your betrayal of the team. Integrity has a price.

The people who attack you in such circumstances will do so for what they consider to be the highest and best motives — maintaining party purity. They’re always on guard against incursions from people who are less than sold-out to the cause. They don’t see themselves as defending the indefensible. They’ve already flipped the switch in their minds to emulate what French King Louis XIV reportedly said, “L’État, C’est Moi!” (Louis probably did not say this, but he’ll never live it down.)

“L’État, C’est Moi!” means, “I am the state.” What the king says becomes, de facto, what the country stands for. In the comedy movie “Dave,” about a man who impersonates the president in the White House, Kevin Klein’s faux president character says, “I AM the government.” It’s played for a laugh. But in our current political climate, it doesn’t seem so funny.

Translated to our own post-modern politics, it means that hyper-partisans sanctify whatever the party or their favored politician does or says. New doctrine gets created on-the-fly. In effect, the new behavior or dogma becomes a party principle, even if it would have been considered heresy a few years, or months, earlier.

I have an odd kind of admiration for people who can do this. Because they fully commit to the doctrine of the moment, they suffer no wrestlings in their soul. They’re laser-focused on one objective — beating the other side. No philosophical or ethical qualms can interfere with their supreme objective. There’s a certain kind of Utopian clarity made possible by such thinking.

But even if I tried, I could not do it. Call it a character flaw of mine, or merely a conscience. Perhaps you suffer this flaw too. I’m not able to suspend discernment when it comes to my own views, to my party’s, and to the views of those who represent me. I’m not able to make arguments with which I disagree as if I were supportive.

By the same token, I can’t suspend discernment when it comes to the other party and to its politicians.

The WinSome approach calls for using your mind, and speaking the truth.

If we support what’s wrong simply because it comes from our allies, or oppose what’s right simply because it comes from our opponents, then we’re not ethical citizens, but mere partisan gamers.

Mindless partisans do not effective persuaders make.

But, you may ask, “How can we expect to persuade others of the righteousness of our cause if we’re not fully persuaded ourselves?”

I am fully persuaded of the righteousness of our cause, but I also know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” [Romans 3:23], and that includes me, and my allies. I don’t confuse personalities and principles, nor party and principles. I can support my principles, and oppose my party or politicians from time-to-time. I can also oppose the other party’s objectives, and yet applaud their politicians when they do something consistent with my principles.

My driving motive for writing WinSome comes from the lack of true civil discourse, which I believe is the death of a functioning republic. My concern is not new.

When you read ‘The Federalist’, a series of essays penned in 1787-88, you see that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay — not to mention their peer, George Washington — feared the triumph of partisanship, which they called ‘faction’. The saw the checks and balances, and division of powers, in the Constitution as important defenses against the pernicious effect of faction. Nevertheless, Madison and Hamilton went on to become early leaders among their respective factions. Their instincts in ‘The Federalist’ essays were correct, but later their flawed humanity often led them down a different path, one that opened deep divisions between men who otherwise shared mutual respect, timeless values, an instinct for careful thought, and the intellect to engage in it.

The struggle between our integrity and our desire for political victory continues to this day. I’m not saying we can win this internal battle every time, but the struggle must continue. For what would it profit us to gain the whole world, or the next election, and to lose our souls?

Above all, the WinSome approach calls for the kind of integrity that earns respect, and thus a hearing, from those who oppose your ideas. Your willingness to speak the truth, even to your own detriment, will make a large deposit into your credibility bank, and garner quiet admiration from those you seek to persuade.