The issue with principles
Published: Monday, October 29, 2012 at 3:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 3:37 p.m.
If there is any one thing that is wrong with politics, national and local, I think it is principles. Not that our politicians don’t have enough principles, I think the problem is that they have too many.
Before you start muttering comments like “Bennett has really gone off the track this time,” consider this. Personal principles, such as standards of ethical behavior, are indeed a good thing, and your humble columnist has no quarrels in this regard. May all have the most noble of personal principles.
But, in the world of politics, principles have come to mean something else, have often come to be a prettier term for rigid dogma.
You can find plenty of examples of this at both extremes of our political spectrum. On the conservative right, the first “principle” a candidate is expected to honor is no more taxes, and woe befall the elected representative who bows before necessity to vote for a tax to keep the system from collapsing.
Remember Bush the Elder’s taunt “read my lips, no new taxes?” He reneged. The conservatives, enraged because Bush had sold out and compromised his principles, taught him a lesson. They elected Clinton, then spent eight years trying to get rid of him.
Thus has political philosophy become dogma become principles. Officials from the liberal left are in as much of a political straitjacket as their counterparts on the right, being held accountable to a rigid set of “principles.”
Locally, our environmental activists have followed a similar path. Where many of the conservatives have turned a commitment to fiscal responsibility into a no-taxes ideology, so has a determination to protect the environment become a rigid take-no-prisoners strategy that sometimes defies description. Here in Petaluma, they call themselves the “progressives,” though that really isn’t an accurate description of a group that is generally noted for fighting change of any kind, unless it is purely on their terms.
An example of change they supported is the “progressive” majority sacking appointed members of the Planning Commission and replacing them with members who shared “progressive principles.”
The main problem with this rigidity is that it pretty much prohibits working with even the moderates to find solutions to problems. It is “my way or the highway.”
A good local example is the group’s treatment of associate Tiffany Renée. She has been a pretty reliable vote for the progressives, but she committed the sin of thinking for herself.
When Gabe Kearney applied to fill the vacancy on the City Council, Renée voted for him, despite the “progressives” determined effort to put on one of their own. In the archives of “progressive” political principles, one of the biggest sins is not following the party game plan, and apparently, Renée had to be taught a lesson.
In addition, she had the audacity to run (unsuccessfully) for Congress, siphoning a few votes away from the candidate favored by the “progressives,” Norman Solomon.
Mayor Glass and former Mayor Torliatt, described recently in the press as the political leaders of the local progressives, have conspicuously avoided endorsing her for reelection, although they supported her four years ago. Apparently, as far as they are concerned, she has sold out. So, they cut her loose to let her drift.
In the midst of all this slavish adherence to political principles, the faithful don’t seem to recognize that the other side may have some valid points, and there may be a way to get most of what “we” want and also give them most of what “they” want. It is called win-win. It is also called compromise, which unfortunately has become a dirty word, because it assumes in many cases that this means dealing with the enemy, not with someone with different ideas or convictions.
So, being a committed centrist, I’m really not interested in candidates who are controlled by dogma disguised as principles, who have signed pledges or otherwise promised to toe the line if elected. What this country, and what this city, need right now are candidates willing to roll up their sleeves, determined to work with people they may not agree with to find ways to fix our current dysfunctional system.
(Don Bennett, business writer and consultant, has been involved with city planning issues since the 1970s. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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