Loyalty, Voice, and Exit – a comment on a cLooney observation

George Clooney on Our President, and How Democrats Suck at Loyalty, Messaging and Marketing

I’m assuming that Mr. Clooney said this. Even if he didn’t, the sentiments are worth a closer look given that I’ve seen many an approving nod to the things said.

In my critique of Mr. Clooney I am not particularly interested whether the present Obama term has been successful or not. To be honest, there’s plenty Obama has done well in my view, and there’s much he hasn’t. If I had a vote, the only other candidate I’d consider voting for other than Obama is Huntsman. And while I do not think that the Republicans are very different than the Democrats in the way they treat their own, I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

Here I am interested in the central claim that Mr. Clooney puts forth – one of loyalty and allegiance to those you help elect – that one must stick by and stick up for people whom you’ve elected. While he doesn’t say it, the strong implication is that voice and criticism must be curtailed. I submit that individuals in our present political system have too little voice, resulting in apathy and exit. There can be two kinds of exit – exit from the party, or exit from the political process. I use exit, as from the political process. A call for more loyalty and allegiance, rather than voice will only lead to more frustrations, greater apathy, and more exit.

Mr. Clooney’s disillusionment with members of the Democratic Party for lack of loyalty is a less humorous way of channeling many a quote attributed to Will Rogers, like:

•“I’m not a member of any organized political party, I’m a Democrat,”
•“Democrats never agree on anything, that’s why they’re Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they would be Republicans,”
•“The difference between a Republican and a Democrat is the Democrat is a cannibal—they have to live off each other—while the Republicans, why, they live off the Democrats.”

The least problematic aspect of Mr. Clooney’s claim is that it is not new. I’m not being sarcastic or cynical when I say I do admire Mr. Clooney for his political activism and believe that he cares about the general welfare. But is he really asking folks in the Democratic Party to be more loyal and show allegiance to a political machine, than to the ideas which make them want to affiliate with the party? To stick by and stick up for people you have elected seems so much less useful a way of being a political citizen than to stick up for the reasons and policies which made you elect those people in the first place. And it seems to me that when people abandon the ideas and policies for which you elected them, you must protest rather loudly.

If we had Mr. Clooney’s way, and loyalty was vital, then the Vietnam War would never have been protested –the Democrats deepened American involvement, if they didn’t start it, and the Republicans by and large supported the war. If loyalty was an important political ingredient, during the Watergate scandal Howard Baker would not have asked, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” If loyalty did not trump the public good, maybe we wouldn’t have a Justice Thomas on the Supreme Court and maybe we would have seen the resignation of an ethically challenged perjuring President, whose defense has contributed a great deal to the dysfunctional state Washington finds itself in.

At a micro level the suggestion of loyalty to individuals and political parties one voted for is simply dangerous. One would hope that the grassroots, Clooney’s ‘people’, involve themselves in a political process every day, realizing that their individual voices when combined send appropriate messages to the power brokers at all levels. In fact, much of our present crisis can be traced to apathy. While apathy is not loyalty, the two can have the very same effect on the political process because they are both accompanied by silence. The trouble with the American political system today is that the space for effective voice is so narrow, that people have opted out of the system. It isn’t even as if people have opted out because they have faith that things will work out well. Rather it is cynical resignation that there isn’t a darn thing they can do to make the system pay attention to their problems.

In my marriage I’m delighted to commit to a person, to be loyal. Even there, I’d like voice to accompany my loyalty. But in my politics I’ll stick to ideas. Here I’d like my voice to be paramount, and demand that my loyalty and allegiance be constantly earned. And if that be the case, I no longer need to be loyal, but will simply be exercising serial reasoned choice. I hope for a vibrant and dynamic political system where voice, not loyalty, is central and can be effective enough to prevent exit.

I’d really like to hear your reaction to this piece and invite you to take a moment to comment.

P.S. A wonderful starting point for an understanding of the issues of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is Albert Hirschman’s book – please click here if interested.


Thank You Christopher Hitchens

This piece is also available at

I’m sad that Christopher Hitchens has passed away. I’ve never seen the man in person. I’ve seen him on TV, heard him over the radio, and most importantly read him. I will miss never again reading him or listening to him on events that are still to happen.

We all hopefully have role models – people who we look up to and hope we can emulate in some small way. I do not mean in a fantasize sort of way – as in “I hope I can sing like Sanjay Subramaniam.” I know I never can – I don’t sing. But in a much more real sense – in a, “Given what I do, I hope I can do it more at the standards she has done it sort of way.” I think I am in the same professional ball park as Hitchens was – peddling ideas. He was just so much better at it. Note, not just more successful, not just better paid, not just better known, just better.

His brilliance can be wrapped up in three words – thoughtful, courageous, and eloquent. Seldom does the world see this combination.

It was clear that he thought and wrote in a way that was a tribute to logic and clarity. No babble where you had to wonder what he thought. Pascal is attributed as having said, “There are times the heart knows reason that reason will never know.” Keeping figures like Hitchens in mind I have stood that quote on its head to say, “There are times the head knows compassion that the heart will never know.”

He feared nobody and wrote scathingly of people as beloved or powerful as Mother Teresa and Henry Kissingner (no points for figuring out who the beloved is there, or who the powerful), or as fictional in his perspective as God. It seems like he took positions that made it hard to put him into a box. Given the American political lexicon, he was a flaming liberal on social issues, and a neo-conservative when it came to the Iraq war and the ‘war on terror’. While he didn’t fit convenient political and social pigeon holes, he most certainly was in the box which read, ‘Courageous and Says It As He Sees It’.

There are some people who think well and write badly – many an academic journal will give you examples of this – though be warned most of what you will find there is ‘thought badly and written badly’ pieces. Some people think badly and write beautifully – V.S. Naipaul and Arundhati Roy fall into this category in my book. And then there are the few gems who think brilliantly and write eloquently – and Hitchens was one of them.

I’ll end this tribute to Hitchens with a personal note. Last week one of my students walked into my office hours and our conversation on population and poverty led to a discussion of women’s rights and abortion. My student was clear that his to be wife will never have an abortion and he will see to that. The reason was simple – his God dictated that. I offered to get the student my copy of Hitchens’ ‘God in Not Great’ as part of his winter break readings. (I also suggested he read Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’) and then have a conversation about God on our return to campus. Unfortunately I couldn’t find my copy of ‘God is Not Great’ – I’ve lent it to someone else, and I don’t know who. Given this turn of events I’ll probably get the student a copy of the book. Thinking about it, a good collection of Christopher Hitchens’ books is as good a Christmas gift as any other for many a person. If interested here is a link to Amazon’s Christopher Hitchens page. http://www.amazon.com/Christopher-Hitchens/e/B000APSKR0/ref=sr_1_1?qid=1324048104&sr=1-1-ent

Note, I haven’t mentioned the religion of the student above. Something tells me Hitchens would not have been so politically correct.