In Defense of Principle

Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz speaking at the 2013 Young Americans for Liberty National Convention at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore)

By Chloe Davis

“Moderation in the protection of liberty is no virtue; extremism in the defense of freedom is no vice.” That was Barry Goldwater in his 1964 acceptance speech of the Republican Party’s nomination for presidential candidate. Like Goldwater himself, extremism in the defense of liberty seems to have gone out of style amongst today’s conservatives. It seems especially taboo amongst those who, in good faith, seek to reach across the aisle and find middle ground with their political opponents.

There’s a hesitance to debate politics from a place of principle these days; it makes us a little uncomfortable with ourselves, in the same way that invoking the name of Goldwater feels akin to telling the world we sleep with an Ayn Rand novel under our pillow. We censor ourselves for fear of being labeled extreme in our views. In lieu of wearing our conservative principles on our sleeves, we try leading with other approaches: common sense, pragmatism, centrism…

The problem with common sense, pragmatism, and centrism, moderate as they may sound, is that in practice they make us relativists. “Common sense” is good judgment as defined by common consensus. Pragmatism is a lesser form of compromise focused narrowly on solving the problems put before us by others without reference to any broader implications. Centrism, perhaps the most deceptive of all these approaches, is indentured to the changeable conception of the here and now.

Meanwhile, “principled” has become a dirty word in politics today. Lawmakers who take a principled stance are called obstructionists or said to be showboating for their constituents, rather than doing the responsible, grown-up work of passing laws. There is a great temptation to make pragmatism our prevailing code of conduct in governance. But pragmatism, not a principle in and of itself, relies on someone else’s ideology to set the parameters of the task at hand.

When the waters of political whimsy begin to churn, “centrist” relativism will keep us afloat at the cost of our bearings. Unanchored by principle, we will find ourselves adrift in a sea of ill-fated compromises. If our guiding doctrine is consensus, we are slaves to the current of the times.

What our political discourse needs now is an impassioned defense of principle. Because what we are really hesitating over is the fear of being seen as ideologues. In polite society, we find ideology distasteful—and rightly so. The danger of enabling ideologues is a lesson we’ve learned in this century and in the last one. But ideology is not synonymous with principle. If we are hoping to build bridges between red and blue, we cannot do it from a shaky foundation.

Put simply, an ideology is a system of beliefs that dictates how a person processes new evidence; a principle is a fundamental value that will naturally guide how a person acts on that evidence. Ideologies, unlike principles, rely on fixed external realities to validate firmly held beliefs. As external realities change or evolve, to the extent that they cease to validate those ideological beliefs, something in the system must change to accommodate the new state of reality. The result tends to be a rejection of reality and a distortion of fact, in order that the ideological beliefs may remain intact.

In the progressive ideology, free speech is a lauded principle only until it interferes with the interests of what is perceived to be the greater good. Take this excerpt from the manifesto written by students at Pomona College earlier this spring, in response to a statement on academic freedom by Pomona College President David Oxtoby:

‘Free speech, a right many freedom movements have fought for, has recently become a tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions. It has not just empowered students from marginalized backgrounds to voice their qualms and criticize aspects of the institution, but it has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry. Thus, if “our mission is founded upon the discovery of truth,” how does free speech uphold that value?’

Free speech was paramount to many freedoms in the past, but now it is a “tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions,” and thus it must be quashed. As external circumstances evolve, the worldview must be maintained, and first to be dispensed with are those pesky principles like the right of all people to think and say what they believe.

Proponents of “third-wave” or intersectional feminism espouse an ideology that is predicated on the idea that women and other identity groups (minority racial groups, for example) have been and still are marginalized by a straight white male patriarchy. Because the underpinnings of the movement are rooted in this perceived marginalization, rather than on the fundamental truth that men and women are born equally deserving of freedom, the ideology itself is tied to the externality of unequal outcomes. Presented with counterevidence to the prevailing narrative of an oppressive patriarchy, the whole movement is threatened, and conflicting realities are vehemently denied.

Ideologies grow their ranks by providing people with justification for how they already think and feel. They offer up a pre-scripted narrative onto which adherents can project their own experiences and through which they can filter any new information that comes their way. Allegiance to ideology above all means that a person’s principles are subject to change, depending on what their worldview requires of them. This is the underlying mechanism at work in the expression, “The ends justify the means.”

In order for ideology to remain intact, principle shifts to accommodate, or basic facts are denied. We change the map to fit the route. We eat the menu. Ideology leads to nowhere good. On the other hand, principle, as the expression of fundamental truths, is what keeps us intellectually honest. Principles do not supersede reality. But they do guide how we respond to it.

Recently I had the privilege of attending an event on Princeton’s campus which featured Senator Ted Cruz, Class of ’92, in conversation with his thesis advisor, Professor Robert George. While discussing the origins of the American brand of conservatism, Professor George said of American conservatives, “They were old-fashioned liberals. What was conserved were the principles of America’s founding.”

In 1776, the authors of the Declaration of Independence immortalized in writing a radical truth and the foundational principle from which they would later extrapolate an entire system of government architected to uphold that principle. They said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

If we are to govern well, if we are to reach across the aisle and build bridges where there is no common ground, we have to start with a solid foundation built on these founding principles. Bipartisanship doesn’t require consensus, but it does require a great deal of intellectual honesty. Before we can work towards common goals, we must stand firmly on our principles.

Boldly defending the principles of equality, liberty, and justice is never an extremist stance. But moderation of that defense is what softens the ground for extremism. Ideology is indeed pernicious, and principle is the only defense.

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Gabrielle Martin
If ideologies “rely on fixed eternal realities to validate firmly held beliefs,” on what do principles rely? How are the “fundamental truths,” (synonymized in this article with “principles”) ordained? That is, from where do they originate? What, or whom, is their adjudicator? Distilled, Davis’ argument is a denouncement of subjectivity (euphemized as ideology) and a concomitant appeal to objectivity (euphemized as principle), and it is predicted on the presumed self-evidence of “fundamental truths.” But truth is not self-evident: neither conjured from the ether nor summoned from the past. Instead, the codification of truth, especially those anointed the title “fundamental,” is… Read more »