When I was about 25, I was at a union organizing meeting for graduate teaching assistants at the University of Kansas. There were about 35 people there, and the conversation turned to the possibility of making our concerns known by blocking Jayhawk Boulevard, the main road through campus. My interior monologue went something like this: “Block the road? I don’t want to block the road. People have places to go, and it’s hard enough to manage driving anywhere on this campus without people blocking the road. This will just alienate people.” So then the meeting leader said, “OK, everyone who’s willing to block the road and get arrested, raise your hand.” I swear, every single person in the room put their hand up, except me.
I’ve done a lot of protesting and marching for leftist causes in my life—for women’s reproductive rights, against war, for black lives, for LGBTQ Pride, against economic injustice, but I’ve always avoided protests that I thought might turn violent or illegal. When I was a pro-life Catholic in my late 20s, I was less engaged in activism (in part because I didn’t feel fully comfortable in my skin as a Republican), but I would sometimes go and quietly pray the rosary outside the abortion clinic with a couple of friends. No signs, no shouting. We would make chit-chat with the security guard and smile at women who arrived, but we stayed seated on the sidewalk and didn’t approach them. Basically, I’ve gotten through my life to date without ever shouting in someone’s face for either left- or right-wing causes.
I can see that my radical friends get energized by open conflict at a protest, but I do not. There was a lot of conflict in my family when I was growing up, and I responded by becoming conflict avoidant. I have married two men who dislike fighting as much as I do, so much so that my first husband and I got through the end of our marriage and a divorce and its aftermath without ever, as I recall, raising our voices at each other. This was probably not a good thing, as it meant there were many things I should have said to him that I never did, and as he managed to hurt me at least as much as one big fight would have by refusing for three years to ever say the words “hello,” “good-bye,” “please,” or “thank you” to me.
So it’s clear to me now that part of why I’m not a radical is because of temperament and personality traits that are outside of my control, but that’s a recent insight. Previously, I was pretty susceptible to the guilt trips of radical leftists. I held in my mind the unquestioned belief that ideological purity is better than pragmatism. I had adopted with respect to myself the point of view of the radical leftists—that it was only my milquetoast-y conflict avoidance that prevented me from being one of them.
But that’s not actually true, and I learned that during this year’s primary season. Because of the lateness of the Indiana primary, my choice in the primary hadn’t previously felt like a particularly important decision. The closeness of this year’s Democratic Party primary process meant that I had to give serious thought to both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton before the Indiana primary on May 3. The loudest voices on the left value ideological purity over pragmatism (this is true on the right as well, of course). These people see political compromise between parties and work to find solutions that are acceptable to a large number of people as pandering and selling out. When I did my research on Sanders and Clinton to decide which of them to support, I realized that, although I had unquestioningly accepted the tenet of the priority of ideological purity, that belief did not withstand my scrutiny.
The number-one problem for ideologically pure folks in politics is that they can’t get anything done (see my future blog post with working title “Opinions are like assholes—everybody’s got one . . . but policies are better” [I may need to shorten that title, lol]). It’s a lot easier to inspire like-minded people with ideas based on shared opinions than it is to turn those opinions into sound policies and laws that can pass. I chose pragmatism and experience over ideological purity when I voted for Clinton in the primary, and the process of deciding helped me to think through some unquestioned ideas I had carried with me for my whole life.
The radical leftists who valued ideological purity over pragmatism and thus didn’t vote for Clinton in the presidential election will have four years to learn what that choice will cost the country. As the Democratic Party works to create the plan to win back seats in 2018 and to win back the White House in 2020, I will chime in repeatedly with my opinion that the way to do so is not to push leftward toward a more ideologically pure party. The nation is moving leftward on its own, and pushing further leftward is not as important right now as winning elections. I’m conflict avoidant, so I won’t fight just to fight, but you bet I will fight to win.
Rachel E. Hile