The myth of political principles

I’m not sure why anyone would be surprised that Mitch McConnell would vote for Donald Trump as president on 2024. I assume all the handwringing and outrage among pundits is largely performative. Of course Mitch McConnell is going to vote for the Republican candidate in 2024. All of the incentives of American democracy as it is structured right now lead him to no other plausible outcome.

Here’s the key thing to understand about politics just in general: principle is not a consideration for decision-making. Or, if it every is, it comes into play way down the list of decision factors, behind things like self-interest, party loyalty, interest group influence, electoral impact, and a plethora of others. Conservative/progressive/liberal/libertarian/identarian principles very rarely come into the calculation when politicians make decisions about voting or public statements or when it comes to what to support or not support. This is true on the right and the left. Principles are just simply not luxuries politicians feel they can indulge, aside from a few iconoclastic personalities who rarely are able to muster support across a wide base (Bernie is the only moderately successful principled politician in recent history.) Principles are for the rest of us, and its up to us to figure out which party’s quest for power best benefits the principles and causes we might support.

And honestly, this is how the Founders designed our system to work. Those who crafted the Constitution understood that human motivation is very rarely principled, but instead is guided by baser instincts, and thus they put together a system replete with checks and balances and guardrails and funnels and other methods of channeling and focusing the various motivations of politicians towards the responsible use of power in a way that benefits the Republic.

I think our political culture has lost that plot, and this reaction to McConnell’s declaration of support is just another example of how our perceptions and expectations about politics are misguided. We need to stop reacting to our political leaders – and trying to influence our political leaders – like they are responsive to arguments about principles and values and ideas. Instead, we have to remember that what they respond to is arguments rooted in power and self-interest and electoral incentive. Is it the most virtuous system out there? Far from it. But we can either do politics in the world as it is, or as we wish it would be. I know which one Mitch McConnell has decided to operate in.


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