People Over Principle

A number of years ago, Noam Chomsky wrote a book called Profit Over People. It was a brief polemic against neoliberalism, in which he accused corporations and western governments of valuing profits over people, both at home in the West, and in the rest of the world. It was a rousing call to value human beings over corporate profits or economic efficiency. If you haven’t read it, you should. Your nearest socialist public library might even have a copy if you don’t want to buy it.

As the 2016 presidential election has dragged on and on, and we slug our way gradually to the finish line now, I have seen a similar problem emerging on the left. I call this the Principles Over People problem. It is no surprise that the conservative Right would prioritize ideas over people—ideas have to take priority over reality because their ideas never actually touch reality—but it is a little surprising to find large numbers of people on the progressive Left doing the same thing.

What do I mean? Very simply, I mean that there are large numbers of people who call themselves progressives who seem perfectly willing to sacrifice real, actual people that are alive right now, for the sake of ideas that might come to fruition down the road, maybe. Right now these people are generally the people still adamant about voting for Jill Stein instead of Hillary Clinton.

Why are they still voting for Jill Stein? Early on in the race it looked like Stein and surrealist mime Gary Johnson might have had an opportunity to surge enough in the polls to gain access to the debates. That would have been a game-changer for party politics, and I was interested in Stein at the time for that reason (and because her platform is better than anyone else’s). But Stein never got past 4% in the polls, and quickly sank back down to around 2%. By any reasonable account the progressive base would shift back to Clinton as the best third option (after Bernie and Stein). But instead Stein’s campaign shifted rhetoric around getting “enough” support in states to get federal funding down the road. The argument changed from a short-term (she might get in the debates and become a real challenger) to the usual long-term goal (future possible viability).

This is where a substantial number of people on the Left started to advocate for the Principles Over People approach. Their argument is essentially a purity argument: Hillary is an “impure” candidate, compromised. Ideologically inconsistent. Imperfect. Therefore she must be rejected in favor of the pure candidate, Jill Stein, and the pure party, the Green Party.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I want Jill Stein’s platform. But I’m not going to get Jill Stein’s platform. Third-party voters are also right that if everybody who said third parties aren’t viable voted for a third party, that party would become viable. But at a certain point you know that a third party will not be viable this election cycle.

But here is the point: there is always an element of selfishness in voting for ideological purity over people. I want Stein’s platform, but I’m not going to get it. I can either out of sheer obstinacy vote for that anyway, in an effort to make myself feel good about my actions, or I can recognize that while far from perfect, Hillary Clinton’s platform is much better in lots of areas than Donald Trump’s platform. I can recognize that poverty is a precarious position to be in, and that even slight changes in policy can result in large numbers of people going hungry or ending up in the streets rather than in public housing. Yes, Clinton is a hawk on foreign policy. Yes, her environmental record isn’t great. But it is better than Trump’s. He wants to get rid of the EPA (or as he referred to it, the “Department of Environmental”). Clinton isn’t going to cut funding for school lunches for low income kids. She’s not going to cut public housing funds, or HUD programs. She isn’t going to try to get rid of Social Security, SSI, Disability, welfare, food stamps, or any of the other hundreds of necessary programs that are assisting poor Americans get by day to day, week to week, month to month.

To refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she isn’t perfect is, in my view, ethically obscene. It is to say to the very real, embodied poor right now, “Your suffering does not matter as much as my good feelings. It does not matter as much as my ideological purity. You do not matter as much as my ideas.” It says, “I am allowing you to suffer in the present so that maybe we can make better changes in the future.” Guaranteed suffering now, for possible benefits down the road. This is nothing more than warmed-over paternalism, privilege of the highest order, and starkly anti-democratic.

There is no way in hell that Jesus would ever endorse such a strategy. He said to clothe the naked and feed the hungry right now, not let them go hungry just another four, eight, twelve years so we can maybe help them then.

What we need, when thinking about ethics, especially in relationship to American and global politics, is to renew our commitment as progressives to the philosophy of John Dewey, one of the great titans of American progressivism. His work Ethics is a good place to start. He was a proponent of pragmatism in ethics; that is, of situational ethics. The needs of people in every given moment define what is good in that moment. Joseph Fletcher’s Stituation Ethics is another good place to start wrestling with this idea. Fletcher took the concept of pragmatism and showed that it was, essentially, very similar to Jesus’s own ethics. That is, Jesus’s love was defined not by an idealist system, but by a response to the immediate needs of the people in front of him. As they were in need, he acted to meet those needs. Whatever systems or principles got in the way had to be overcome for the sake of love.

A proper Christian humanism, a proper Christian ethics, would say that nothing is categorically good except love itself. This is what I call the People Over Principles approach. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Principles are only tools in God’s hands, soon to be thrown away as unserviceable,” (Ethics, p. 8). Abraham Hershel similarly wrote, “The insistence upon generalization [principles] at the price of a total disregard of the particular and concrete is something which would be alien to prophetic thinking. Prophetic words are never detached from the concrete, historic situation. Theirs is not a timeless, abstract message; it always refers to an actual situation. The general is given in the particular and the verification of the abstract is in the concrete,” (God in Search of Man, p. 204).

Did you catch that? Abraham Hershel, the great Jewish theologian, stated that those who insist upon prioritizing generalization (his term for principles) at the cost of disregarding the particular and concrete situation, and the particular and concrete individuals in that situation, is completely contrary to how the prophets thought and acted.

In the words of Paul, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” (Gal. 5:14). What, do we imagine, we are obligated to do by the command to love our neighbors as ourselves when faced with Donald Trump? Voting for Stein brings no help at all to our neighbors, because she holds no public office and will not be President. So the first question for the pragmatic ethicist who prioritizes love is: who will actually viably affect policy? The answers are either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The second question is: who wants to strip away the last vestiges of the social safety net, and who will more or less preserve it or even improve it? Whose governance will actually improve the real, embodied lives of actual, living Americans? Not Donald Trump, that’s for sure.

We fancy ourselves sophisticated thinkers. But we need to start asking ourselves more difficult questions. We need to stop prioritizing ideas over people. People are what matter, and acting in love toward those people in the situation is what matters. People over principle are people of true principle.


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