On Loyalty

This political season has led me to reflect on my moment of political de-awakening in 2010, back on that Mexican night when I stood before a statue of Abraham Lincoln and freed myself from overreaction to election results. I swore that I would never let politics define my fundamental happiness: family my immediate network, my community, would come first. While there have been bumps, particularly amid Covid isolation, I have managed that, through a volcanic Trump era and some peaks and valleys closer to home. Despite a lifetime of fascination with this world, I have simultaneously held it at a certain remove, forever intrigued and even active but never quite attaining full immersion.

This tension begs the question of why I still spend a fair amount of time hovering around the political arena. I certainly have some opinions on things, and would like to see my milieu move in certain ways. But more than that it is a way to meet people who believe in action, who believe in the betterment of their worlds and who recognize they have a role to play in it. Some of the people who are most full of life that I have ever met are politicians, at their best when they channel others around them and use their wit and charisma to achieve results against long odds. They enter some of the most brutal, unsparing competitions a person can find: failure is public, they place targets on themselves, and their choices affect not just their own selves or circles but stray random individuals who may have nothing to do with them. The winners in politics get to touch the levers of power, and power requires great care. Few situations say more about people than how they react when so exposed.

Hanging around politics is a social activity, and the people who are attracted to politics are always looking for something. The best of these are the committed, hardworking volunteers; the people who are scrapping their way up out of committed belief or who have free time to give to things they believe in. But one will also find a few awkward hangers-on who cling to campaigns in cringey forms. There are the attention hounds, those who are more interested in the image of appearing useful than actually doing so, and the grudge-holders who get caught up in the inane drama within these small circles. And there are the climbers, who will work hard for those who can give them something in return but offer little when they suddenly do not. Some of these political animals are using electioneering to fill an inner void, a turn to a flawed, earthly pursuit for meaning against which my 20-year-old self instinctively rebelled; others are merely the thin and vain who would never even recognize a void that swallowed them whole. Too many others are true believers who get caught up in the machine, float into a place that combines some of those two strains, and wind up in too far deep before they have a chance to realize how adrift they are.

Now, twelve years removed from that visit to Lincoln, I find my political self not loyal to a party or even so much to a real set of policies (though I have my preferences), but to certain people. To the people who engage in politics because they think they can do some good in the world, who see opportunities in front of them and leap in despite some trepidations, rather than those who barrel ahead because they’ve convinced themselves that this is who they are and what they must be. To people who are excited by what they can do in office, not the mere act of running. To the people who display loyalty, to people who recognize that loyalty is a two-way street, and to the people who cultivate it in turn. To the people whose loyalties remain true through victory and defeat. To the people who stay loyal even if my own reality takes me in a direction that limits my chances for direct engagement, as this year’s has.

That loyalty is ever so important because politics can consume people, even those who start out with the best of intentions. In a world where the end goal is always in the eye of the beholder, the ground on which people stand shifts faster than anyone could expect. The outcomes of political work are all filtered through public opinion, significantly murkier than the clean profit motive in running a business or the carefully honed mission statement of a well-run nonprofit. Politicians have to sell not a product with a discrete use but themselves in their flawed human forms, imperfect vessels to funnel into positions with narrow paths to achieving outcomes. Money can help, but it alone cannot buy success, nor can one ever have enough. Many politically active people are plagued with an eternal craving for more that even the greatest policy achievements will not satisfy. It is the ultimate Sisyphean goal, the promised eternal renewal of human affairs.

And so, instead of a series of hot takes on the political trends in northeast Minnesota or a rumination on national polls, this year I choose simply to offer my thanks. There are some wonderful people in my network, and after a year that pushed many of them to the brink, may we continue to pursue greatness with the levers we have in our hands. Our moments are here for us to seize them, and as long as we have these ties, we will survive, no matter the outcome.

In retrospect, I may have made a mistake twelve years ago, when I said community, not politics, would be that source of happiness. Politics might just have been the conduit to find a community, and those ties go far deeper than the results of one stray election. The pursuit can reap rewards we never could have imagined.