The perils of purity - there are limits

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Montana Viewpoint

As November elections loom in America different forces are at work in both major political parties to find a theme common to the political compartmentalization of their respective constituencies. With the forces of Trump loyalists against traditional conservative Republicans the establishment Republicans seem to be losing the ability to control their own party. The Democrats, thankfully, do not have that worry because they seem to never have been in control of their party in the first place.

Some Democratic candidates are being urged to go progressive. Others urge Democrats to seek — once more — the middle ground. The problem is that Democrats are trying to get the candidates to conform to a political norm that is non-existent. In my umpteen years in Montana Democratic politics I have been constantly stunned by people who call themselves Democrats but seem to hold few of the principal beliefs that Democrats say makes one a Democrat. In those same umpty years I have struggled to find a unifying factor that counterbalances the contradictory non-conformist factors, with no success.

One of the most challenging things for Democrats is maintaining the appearance of a unified party when it is anything but. Myself, I think it is better to present a party of independent thinkers united by a universal principle.

But independent thinking is discouraged in politics because politics, if it is about anything, is about control, and you cannot have control with a diversity of opinions. That’s how some feel, but I’m not one of them.

And what does that control of a political party entail? Oftentimes it seems little more than being in control for its own sake. It is both the means to an end and the end to a means.

A political party’s reason for existence is to be able to run a government so it can put ideology into action. In a government, the key to political power is control, the key to control is winning a majority, the key to winning a majority is having candidates whose individual views reflect the diversity of their individual districts. The key to diversity is respecting differences of opinion.

Is respect of others’ opinions not what many voters seem to crave? You go to your church, I’ll go to mine, but meanwhile let’s have lunch together.

Unfortunately, it often seems more important that a “pure” Democrat or Republican loses an election that an “impure” Democrat or Republican could win. The lesson here is that diversity of opinion is bad, that tolerance of diversity is worse, and the success of tolerance toward diversity is disaster.

There was, some 20 years ago, a situation in which a Democratic candidate quit the race after the primary and it was up to the elected members of the Democratic central committees of that district to select a replacement candidate. The district was in two counties, one rural, one predominantly urban. It had been electing Democrats for decades. The rural county put up a candidate who was well respected and well liked; in fact, he was a county commissioner, a pillar of the community. However, the urban county suspected this candidate was “soft” on abortion rights, so, in a political coup they ponied up a “nobody” that they liked, packed the convention, and elected their candidate.

The rural county had been blindsided and was furious. They disbanded the central committee and refused to have any part in democratic politics in the future. The urban county’s candidate won that election but did not run again, and the once reliably Democratic district has been solid Republican ever since. Short term gain for long-term pain.

Purity has its limits.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator, and four years as Chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.

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