Loyalty and Tragedy in Politics

Trump campaign is like Greek tragedy

Fresno Bee, March 19, 2016

  • Loyalty is a virtue that can become a vice
  • Loyalty should not be mechanical, bigoted, or provincial
  • Donald Trump pledged loyalty to the GOP

Rival Republican candidates pledged to support the party’s nominee, even if it was Donald Trump. But some Republicans are thinking of jumping ship.

GOP 2016 TrumpTrump has complained that his loyalty has not been reciprocated. He warned of riots if the party were to deny him the nomination. Will those Republicans who denounced Trump in recent weeks remain loyal?

It seems that we are witnessing a Greek tragedy in which conflicting loyalties generate pathos, pity and fear. The current morality play points to the perennial ethical question of loyalty and its value.

In tragedy, the hero proudly declares her loyalty in opposition to some other person’s cause. Each side becomes recalcitrant. Violence looms. The crisis is resolved with the downfall of the characters, and in some cases the demise of the political establishment itself.

Loyalty is a double-edged sword. Committing to something gives meaning and purpose to existence. Our loyalties shape our lives. But dogmatic loyalty is as dangerous as treachery.

Consider the problem of the loyal gangster. Sincere loyalty is not praiseworthy when the cause is a bad one, even though we understand the power of gangland loyalty.

We also empathize with the faithful wife who stands by her man despite his philandering. We appreciate the love of a devoted father who protects a criminal child. And we recognize a kind of virtue in the steadfast soldier whose loyalty is abused by immoral armies and iniquitous empires.

Loyalty leads to moral disaster when people support causes that they should abandon. Mechanical fidelity is not really loyalty. Loyalty requires intentional commitment and ongoing reflection. It is not praiseworthy to go along with traditional allegiances because of inertia. Habitual loyalty is unworthy of a thinking person.


Unthinking loyalty is a kind of bigotry. Loyalists can be blinded by their allegiance, biased against those who have other loyalties. For that reason, loyalty often seems to be an old-fashioned virtue incompatible with democratic values and the idea of toleration.

Loyalty becomes bigoted when combined with stubborn pride, what the Greeks called hubris. Loyal persons identify with the object of their allegiance. When the team does well, we feel proud. But when our party is attacked, we take it personally. Wounded pride easily becomes indignant and sometimes violent.

About a hundred years ago, the American philosopher Josiah Royce wrote a book extolling loyalty as devotion that gives form to life. In fidelity to a cause, Royce said, life becomes real, solid, and active. An individual without loyalties would be a blank, apathetic shadow.

From this perspective, it is easy to understand why people can be seduced by false or evil causes. We want to belong to something beyond ourselves. In some cases, the content of the cause is less important than the longing for loyalty. Royce suggested that the cure for intolerant loyalty is to respect other people’s loyalties. He celebrated the idea of loyalty to loyalty itself.

One of Royce’s students, Alain Locke, extended this analysis further. Locke is an important African American philosopher, known as the philosophical father of the Harlem Renaissance. It is easy to imagine, with African American history in mind, how loyalty is connected to racism by way of so-called “race loyalty.”

Locke distinguished proper loyalty from unjustifiable prejudice. He wanted “value loyalty” without “value bigotry.” Locke dreamed of a pluralistic commitment to values that was not dogmatic or intolerant. He wanted us to overcome sectarian fanaticism and narrow provincialism by calling for a cosmopolitan sort of loyalty to loyalty.

Nearly a century later, Locke’s pluralistic paradise has yet to be created. Racial division still plagues us. Our loyalties remain provincial. Hubris haunts our politics. And bigotry divides us.

A better understanding of loyalty could help. Human beings need loyalty. But loyalty is not a stand-alone virtue. It is connected to all of the rest of our values. Those values transcend party affiliation and the temporary allegiances of political expedience.

Loyalty must be tempered by justice, moderation, and wisdom. Loyalty provides a rudder through changing seas. But misplaced loyalty can be an anchor that inhibits critical thinking and common sense. And sometimes it is wiser to abandon ship than to remain loyal to a lost cause.

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Voting, Cynicism, and Irrational Optimism of Democracy

Act of voting requires us to overcome cynicism

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-06-16

Most Californians elected not to vote last week. Statewide voter turnout was less than 30%. Fresno County turnout was around 20%.

It is rational not to vote — especially in an election like this one. There were a couple of referenda where your vote might have made a difference. But in other races, the incumbent had no viable opposition. Republicans already knew that Romney was the party’s choice; and Democrats had no choice at all. It is remarkable that anyone bothered to vote, given the inevitability of much of the ballot.

What is even more remarkable is that some voted for candidates who had no chance of winning, like Ron Paul, who got 10% of the Republican vote. This seems quite irrational. Why vote for a candidate who cannot win? Isn’t it easier to just stay home?

I talked about voting with professor David Schecter, the chair of the Political Science Department at Fresno State. Schecter maintained that democracy is not a spectator sport. We have the opportunity — maybe even an obligation — to get involved and to vote.

Schecter suggested that there are many reasons why people vote. Voting can be an expressive act. When we vote, we affirm solidarity with others who have fought and died to achieve the franchise. When we vote, we act as role models — showing our children what we value. Some may even view voting as a moral obligation or a duty of citizenship, along the same lines as military service or jury duty.

Schecter pointed out, however, that social scientists also explain voting behavior as a matter of habituation. If your parents vote, you are likely to vote. People who voted in previous elections are more likely to vote in the next election than people who have not voted. Political scientists also can predict electoral behavior based upon demographic data.

But we like to believe that there is more to our own decisions than mere habit or demography. Can mere habit explain why we continue to vote when we know our votes don’t matter much? Or why some people vote for candidates who have no chance of winning?

One explanation is hinted at by the American philosopher Josiah Royce and his analysis of “lost causes.”

Royce discusses the spiritual power that is generated by those who persevere in the face of loss. When we remain loyal to a lost cause, we grieve what we’ve lost while renewing our efforts toward the future.

In many cases, it is rational to give up and surrender. But for some people, the lost cause provokes even more effort.

Royce describes a kind of energy and joy that comes from idealistically serving a cause “of which the world, as it is, is not yet ready.”

Royce’s idea helps explain why people remain committed to religious faith. It even helps explain why people keep getting married despite the fact that many marriages end in divorce.

And it explains our irrational faith in electoral politics. We want to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that our votes count.

Every election season, we somehow find the will to believe that this time things will be different. We set our cynicism aside and go to the polls. Even when we know our votes don’t count for much, we vote. Or we vote for candidates who have no chance of winning.

There is a kind of irrational optimism and idealism among those who vote. Voters express faith in the system when they vote for losing candidates, the lost causes of American politics.

Why bother? The lost-cause voter wants to somehow send a message to someone, hoping that someday the world will be ready for a change.

The act of voting requires us to overcome cynicism with enthusiasm.

Voters were right to conclude that their votes didn’t matter much last week. Chances are that the turnout will be greater in the fall — when there are more choices that really matter. But we might worry that we’ve lost our idealism and given in to cynicism.

The 70% to 80% of voters who stayed home last week may suspect that American politics really is a spectator sport. If that’s the conclusion, then democracy itself is on its way toward becoming a lost cause.