Loyalty in Politics

A friend said something along these lines in a conversation today: ideals such as loyalty and truth have no place in American politics.

Thinking about this sentiment, I question whether loyalty ever really has (or ought to have) a place in politics (where politics is the work of governing and legislating, not simply running for office). Loyalty, it seems, is the quality of being in some way devoted to the well-being/good of another person or persons. This is not some mysterious quality, though, that is hidden from our view. We recognize it through certain characteristics that are outwardly observable. That is, we call someone loyal when she has demonstrated her loyalty to another in some real situation. It makes no sense, then, to talk of loyalty as if it is some indwelling or inherent quality of a person; some constituent of a virtuous character. Loyalty lies in the act of being loyal to someone or something.

It seems that talk of a "loyal person" is confused and misleading for that person is loyaly only when loyalty is directed at someone or something. "She is loyal to...", etc. But not simply "she is loyal." A loyal person may be labelled as such when she is loyal to me, or loyal to her friends, loyal to her country, or loyal to the crown, but she cannot just be loyal.

But, then, why oughtn't loyalty be a political virtue? Do we not desire those in office to be devoted to the good and well-being of some other? ...These are the wrong questions, I think. Instead, ask to whom or what politicians ought to display this devotion. Should a politician be loyal to her constituents? To those who gave large donations and supported her campaign? To those who have voted with her in the past? To her party? To her family? To her own ideals? To her country as an idea? To the country's citizenry as a whole? When we ask the question this way, it becomes clear that loyalty to one might very well be inimical to loyalty to another. The interests of all of these factions do not often align, yet each seems to have a claim to the politician's loyalty for some legitimite reasons.

Loyalty seems to be the wrong virtue here, as it must always be directed at someone or something and in being such, it must always be directed at the expense of someone or something else. Loyalty might actually be a political vice in this light. There are many other virtues we might ask of our politicians: honesty, commitment to the best course of action for all parties involved (utility), patience, etc; but loyalty does not seem, in my mind, to fit among these.

Now, I would not go so far to question whether loyalty is ever a virtuous quality. In a platoon on a battle field, in a friendship, on a team...in these situations it plays an important role. What is different here is the game. The games played in these latter situations is one in which the object of loyalty is already defined; it is set forth before the game begins. In politics, this is not so. Here many interests are competing, and it would be detrimental for the politician to declare loyalty to one at the cost of all the others.

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