In Search of Loyalty

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To what and whom do we owe loyalty, and how should we express it?

Generational historians William Strauss and Neil Howe describe a generation of “nomads” in their prophetic book The Fourth Turning.

“The 13th Generation (Nomad, born 1961-1981) survived a hurried childhood of divorce, latchkeys, open classrooms, devil-child movies, and a shift from G to R ratings. They came of age curtailing the earlier rise in youth crime and fall in test scores—yet heard themselves denounced as so wild and stupid as to put The Nation at Risk. As young adults, maneuvering through a sexual battlescape of AIDS and blighted courtship rituals, they date and marry cautiously.”

Howe, Neil; Strauss, William (2009-01-16). The Fourth Turning (Kindle Locations 2810-2812). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

While Strauss and Howe avoid the word “disloyal,” their description hints at a generation of individuals loyal almost exclusively to themselves.

“In jobs, they embrace risk and prefer free agency over loyal corporatism. From grunge to hip-hop, their splintery culture reveals a hardened edge. Politically, they lean toward pragmatism and nonaffiliation and would rather volunteer than vote. Widely criticized as Xers or slackers, they inhabit a Reality Bites economy of declining young-adult living standards [emphasis added].”

I am among the oldest of the current generation of “nomads” in America: Generation X. I bear many tell-tale signs of the generation sandwiched between the idealism of our Boomer brothers and sisters and the “get along” camaraderie of our Millennial children. I have seen loyalty from both sides, now, and the idea still confused me.

I think I recognize disloyalty when I see it, but I lack a ready touchstone for its opposite. Worse, I’m not sure that disloyalty is always wrong or loyalty always right. I stammer over cases where loyalties lie in opposition: a friend to principle; an allegiance to an organization. Politics compounds my confusion.

I believe that government which governs least governs best, that local government is a better guardian of our rights than distant government, and that government has no legitimate powers but for those expressly and narrowly delegated by the people.

Nothing new there. Problem is, others who would stand and lend full-throated, passionate support for the principles expressed in the last paragraph will disagree with me completely on any number of specific cases. When they do, they’re not being disengenuous, I don’t believe; they’re being loyal to the competing principle of pragmatism.

A development tax credit is one example. Credits involve providing private business with taxpayer funding to encourage economic development. Pragmatically, tax credits sound great. In practice, they destroy economies and communities while failing to return the promised benefit for the taxpayers' dollars. Tax credits boil the blood of small government people like me. Loyalty to my principles means fierce opposition to tax credits, always and everywhere (more or less).

Supporting credits are many politicians to whom I feel a very strong personal loyalty. They have defended me, my friends, and our cause with little hope of a political ROI for themselves. In some cases, their support for me risked years of bridge-building to particular communities of voters. In other words, they’ve helped me when I could do nothing for them.

So when personal loyalties conflict with principles, which should win? Before you answer, consider this.

To the Generation X nomads, loyalty may be of little value. We’re fierce individualists. But somewhere in our species and in our culture lies an appreciation for loyalty, not to principles, but to people. In fact, I think the concept of loyalty applies first to people, then to ideas. Loyalty buttresses trust, and without trust, no two people can work effectively for a higher purpose.

Loyalty to people, then, must be a noble principle itself. So how do we resolve the conflict between loyalty to people and loyalty to principle?

I think people can reach different answers. Xers might say that principles trump people because, without firm loyalty to principles, no one will ever know where we stand. Besides, people can forgive, but principles can’t. And true friends would never let you abandon your principles for them.

Millennials, and their GI Generation ancestors, would probably answer the opposite. When the chips are down, you need human allies, because principles can’t really protect you. Plus, loyalty to people lets you continue to champion your principles, but once you’ve cast aside friends over principle, there’s no going back.

So how do we choose between two candidates, one whose political principles mirror our own but has shown no personal loyalty, and another who sometimes strays from our strict political principles but has been a fierce and public defender?

I have played this moral dilemma both ways at different times, to be honest. Sometimes, I’ve risked friendships to advance a higher principle. Other times, I’ve let the principle of personal loyalty triumph. Neither choice felt completely right or completely wrong. I felt dissatisfied with both. I still do.

The best answer I can find, for now, provides no more satisfaction. I will try to be loyal to people and true to principle by broadening the field of principles involved. And I’ll try to be understanding of those who disagree. I’ll try to be honest with those who undoubtedly feel betrayed when people choose between competing loyalties.

The specific cases that inspired this post involve various primaries in Missouri. In several of the races, the candidates who have been great champions of causes important to me and to the St. Louis Tea Party Coalition are running against candidates whose approach to government more closely resembles our own.

Friends have taken strong positions on some of these races. Some demand fidelity to the most philosophically perfect candidate. Others demand loyalty to those who’ve stood by us. All the candidates are capable of winning the general election, so electability is no answer. I can’t just say, “I’ll vote Smitherton, since Applebaum doesn’t have a chance in November.” And none of the candidates is so far out of sync or so unscrupulous as to be disqualified.

I have weighed the possibility that past support for me and my friends resulted from a cold political calculation. I believe political calculation was involved sometimes, but in other cases, only a handful knew.

Still, I struggle between loyalty to ideological purity and loyalty to people who’ve proven loyal to me.

Why am I telling you this? Because I’d like to hear your thoughts about loyalty, people, and principles. Specifically, do you consider loyalty to people a principle?

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