In Defense of Reason Part 6: Independent of Principle

On Friday June 22, 2012 Nick Gillespie, the editor-in-chief of reason.com and self-described libertarian, appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher and criticized both Maher and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC for their supposed liberal bias. While discussing the political scandal known as Fast and Furious, Gillespie asserted that “[liberals] would always take the side of a Democrat over a Republican.” The inability of Maher and Maddow to convincingly respond to Gillespie’s critique has caused several conservative commentators, including Noel Sheppard of newsbusters.org, to claim that liberals have finally been exposed as peddlers of propaganda. The underlying idea, which serves as the topic of Gillespie’s 2011 book, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America, is that partisanship must be rooted out of politics.

Upon further review of the 253rd episode of Real Time, it becomes fairly obvious during the roundtable discussion that Gillespie’s primary motivation is not to discuss the topics at hand, but rather to use Maher and Maddow as unwilling foils to support his over-arching belief that “the important thing is [not to be] a partisan…[and that one should] refuse to be put into a false choice of [being] either [a] democrat or [a] republican.” As a defender of reason, it is my duty to enlighten the hidden fallacies of this statement and to temper the jubilant overreaction of those who would advocate it.

First and foremost, the partisanship of any individual is almost impossible to determine because such a judgment requires an almost omnipotent understanding of someone else’s motives. How does one distinguish true liberals and conservatives from those that are simply enacting mindless party loyalty? If one cannot make this crucial distinction then every vestige of inflexibility can be construed as a partisan reaction. Essentially, the word partisan is by nature dismissive, presumptive, and reductive: a classification that is at best imprecise, and at worst condescending. Rachel Maddow uttered the only appropriate response to such a baseless accusation: “Dude, you don’t know me!”

However, my main problem with Gillespie’s argument is not so much his unfair depiction of Maher and Maddow, but rather his tacit conclusion that the fair-minded independent is the highest political good as well as the only remedy for a stagnant and bitter congress. Gillespie’s logic, like a good non-sequitur, does not follow. First of all, there is nothing inherently good about independent leanings. Whether the issue is the expansion of health care, raising the capital gains tax, or supporting marriage equality, independents tend to benefit the most from the status quo. Because by remaining “open” independents are courted every election cycle by each party and abstain allegiance until one promises to put more money in their pocketbook than the other: independents are political mercenaries who have the luxury of being so unencumbered by or uninformed about policy that they honestly cannot see the difference between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

Although there are many independents who are more likely to vote for one party over the other, they still call themselves independents to avoid being categorized (by men like Gillespie) as mindless partisan automatons. But even if independents were as politically innocuous as Gillespie assumes, he forgets that the absence of ideology is still an ideology. Especially when the binary he is fighting against is not the meaningless appellations of Republican and Democrat, but the very real distinction between ‘Yea’ and ‘Nay’ in regard to congressional legislation. Despite the calls for anti-partisan politics or a multi-party system the end result will be the same: coalitions between philosophically similar political denominations built to oppose another, or (in other words) a de facto two-party system.

What is most disturbing, however, is the potential of Gillespie’s ideas to anesthetize the progressive voter, because at the heart of his critique of partisanship is the demonization of principle. When Gillespie demanded Maddow to name a Republican position that she agreed with, as proof of her objectivity, he made principle and partisanship mutually exclusive. The fact that Maddow may, in fact, not agree with any republican position does not inherently make her partisan or validate republican policy. Furthermore, I reject Gillespie’s presupposition that good policy is always found through cooperation and compromise, sometimes certain perspectives can just be wrong.

Although the evils of partisanship are well documented and the current congress is a perfect example of what can happen when some politicians decide to put party above country, there have been moments when partisan politics lead to the best policy. The abolitionist position of the Republican Party in the 1850s lead to the Civil War (the greatest form of partisanship imaginable), but that was emphatically good policy. Even the supposedly bipartisan Voting Rights Act of 1964 was only possible after John F. Kennedy’s assassination and had to be forced through the Senate via cloture (a controversial parliamentary procedure that eliminates the filibuster), in order to prevent the Southern Democrats from killing the bill. But this arguably partisan move yielded good policy. Although Gillespie is right for being critical of binary oppositions, criticism without contextualization is the worst kind of short-sighted reasoning.

As Americans celebrate the 4th of July we should remember that our nation has been partisan since the beginning. After independence was won, our founding fathers seldom agreed on anything. Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and one of the organizers of the Democratic-Republicans, was so diametrically opposed to the Alien and Sedition Acts imposed by Federalist President John Adams that Jefferson authored the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. These resolutions champion States’ rights and dismiss federal authority to such an extent that they have been repeatedly used as political fodder to justify secession. Every political schism between Congress and the President, from the Civil War to the Tea Party, has been justified by Jefferson’s resolutions. Ironically, the person most directly responsible for the principles of the United States is also responsible for its partisan setbacks. I have a feeling that if Thomas Jefferson were alive today, (after he composed himself from seeing horseless carriages, talking paintings, women who speak, and a Negro in the White House not in chains) he would turn to Nick Gillespie and say: “You spelled ‘independence’ wrong.”

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Chauncey Dennie is a sarcastic, egotistical iconoclast. His contrarian nature often leads him into logical circles that he playfully dismisses as philosophic rigor. If he had any sense at all he would take advantage of his mediocre skills, his high-priced education, and his hometown location in Washington DC to find a way to take over the world — or at least benefit more from capitalism. He’s an entirely-too-emotionally-open control freak whose favorite logical fallacies are straw man and red herring.