Montana Viewpoint: The blindness of political purity
A couple of months ago former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot was labeled a RINO and formally drummed out of the Montana Republican Party, this in the face of the fact that he was responsible for the election of President George W. Bush and was also a former Chair of the national Republican Party.
Where had he gone wrong? (For those who still don’t know, RINO means Republican In Name Only and the Democratic equivalent is DINO.) In the mid-1990s I organized a small, politically diverse group of Democrats who examined the loss of Democratic control of the Legislature by numbers similar to today’s lopsided margin. Our finding was that intolerance of those whose political beliefs were not totally matched to the most passionate of the party’s political activists contributed to Democratic losses. The same would apply to any party where political impurity is not tolerated.
As an example, I used the logo of a popular beverage of the time, Ballantine Ale, which was three interlocked rings which formed a triangle. The rings were labeled “Purity, Body, Flavor”. For the Democrats I used the labels “Pro-choice, Pro-Labor, Pro- Environment.” Where these three rings interlocked was where the “true” Democrat lived. The only problem was that they made up only 5% of those who called themselves Democrats and that anybody with beliefs outside this center were not very desirable as candidates or allies, even though they regarded themselves as Democrats. Holding only two of three core beliefs didn’t cut it.
The Republicans today have the same issue, although it hasn’t—yet—resulted in electoral disaster. Their three rings could be “Trump won, Pro-Family, Pro NRA.” The recent loss of the prophesied “Red Wave” was due to the “Trump Won” candidates losing disproportionately compared to more mainstream Republican candidates.
The important thing in a legislative body, state or federal, is to have the highest number of members of your party elected in order to gain the majority. The majority elects leaders, sets—owns is a better word—the rules, controls legislation and in general, runs the show.
In Montana there have seldom been enough “pure” Democrats to accomplish this, so out of necessity Democrats have had to make do with what they would like to call DINOs but don’t for fear of alienating them and have the DINOs wind up voting with the Republicans. Something that neither party wants to admit nor understand, is that most people do not fit the parties’ notions of true believers.
Logic and experience would suggest that the best candidate for a political position is one whose beliefs are similar to the voters of that political district, that is, they are electable. So, for instance, in a moderate suburban district a Republican “Trump Won” candidate would not fare so well, nor would a Bernie Sanders type Democratic candidate. Political purists, however, might insist on running their version of a “pure” candidate in a primary, defeat the more moderate candidate, but lose the general election.
A political party’s goal is to win the majority, period. I had a friend in the House of Representatives who was a Democrat from a conservative district. His party affiliation helped give the Democrats a slim two vote majority, even though he often voted with the Republicans. Republicans were courting him to switch parties and Democrats were doing everything they could to make him feel unwanted. A lesser person might have switched parties. He didn’t.
My point is this; if a political party wants to govern it has to accept people who do not agree with the party philosophy one hundred percent. Someone once accused me of preaching the politics of accommodation, which is exactly my point because politics is not about finding a majority of people who are with you completely but in finding people who are with you most of the time.
If I have offended anyone’s political sensibilities by saying accepting impurity is important, good. Their beliefs need to be challenged so they can examine them critically. The goal of a political party is to win so it can advance its beliefs. You can’t win by dismissing those who are with you “only” 85% of the time. That’s how Ronald Reagan got Democratic votes. Like Casey Stengel used to say, “You could look it up.”