In response to my post regarding Grover Norquist and his theory that what holds the American conservative movement together is wanting "government to go away," Manny observed that "a person's poltical identity is determined by all sorts of complicated factors." I agree, wholeheartedly, and I think it's worth wondering about some of those factors.
I've been thinking about this, off and on, at least since I was in college. With Sandra Day O'Connor's recent retirement from the Supreme Court, I've been thinking about it more concretely. One of the most common criticisms of O'Connor's performance as a Justice was that she didn't really have any principles, in a legal-theory context. This in contrast to guys like Thomas and Scalia, who have a well-defined approach to deciding cases and political views that are unusually consistent. A not-infrequent explanation for O'Connor's 'unprincipled' behavior has been that her background was in politics. Unlike the Scalias and Thomases, she'd actually had to work in a legislative setting and this exposure made her more flexible and less idealistic in her approach to the law. Sometimes, it's argued that this made her more effective; it certainly made her the decisive Justice on a range of high-profile cases.
And yet, there is something attractive about having political views that are more than ad hoc reactions to current events. As Manny observed, the roots of our political opinions are complex, and it's not always clear why we think the things we do. We frequently fall back on post hoc rationalizations for views we haven't really thought through, just because "our side" holds a position on a particular issue. This can lead to some really weird places; how many people support the death penalty but oppose abortion, or vice versa? It seems to me that it would be worthwhile trying to come to some coherent political or policy principles that make practical sense and don't seem to contradict one another.
Some problems immediately present themselves, though. For one thing, is it possible, or desirable? The world is a complex place, and the fact of the matter is that principles only get you so far - if we follow principle blindly, we often wind up doing more harm than good. Perhaps the best political principle is O'Connor's mixed bag of compromise and moderation - it's not consistent, but it can be an effective way to make small steps forward. But toward what goal? That's not at all clear.
It's also possible that there is no set of political principles that are logically consistent and sound as a matter of practice. Libertarianism, for example, is impressive in its logical rigor but inhuman in any kind of strict application. I'm going to try, as far as I can, to examine my own political beliefs and see whether I can find some kind of sense to them, or if they're just a hodge-podge or mutually contradictory opinions that I've gleaned from who knows what sources and that need some reevaluation.