Effective Good: An Illusive, Elusive White Whale in the Political Waters

by Sharon Jacob, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Author’s note: Melville is not my favorite author in the traditional literary canon. Probably because he used far too many wandering metaphors with unnecessarily florid language.

The Principle of the Thing

I’ve long stayed away from politics, not only because of what I felt were absurdly petty and unnecessarily public feuds, but also because of the conflict of integrity that seemed to come even with a ‘win.’ For me, my principles are everything. They’ve driven nearly every one of my life choices.

I don’t believe the end can justify the means. Isn’t an illicitly gotten ‘good’ end a house built on sand?

The Questioning

This past summer, an episode of the podcast Pod Save America by Crooked Media took aim at progressives who, according to them, sacrificed progress for civility. ‘How can you ever win against those who forsake rules,’ they argued, ‘if you don’t do the same?’ For me, a win means a channel being created or widened to give voices to the voiceless; a win means an under-resourced population receiving resources to meet their needs; a win means the underserved being not only represented, but actually served by their elected representatives.

The discourse on Pod Save America was certainly interesting and worth the listen, but I had trouble wrapping my mind around a true win gained through questionable means. To me it’s the difference between Superman and Dexter (the vigilante serial killer, not the cartoon mad scientist). If the ‘civility doesn’t win’ argument were true, shouldn’t we hold the superhero and the anti-hero in the same level of high regard? Yet, we use one as an early model of ethics for our kids and uncomfortably ignore the other, branding it an immoral, misguided, and chaotic attempt at justice.

The Confusion

Is a ‘good’ piece of legislation that benefits a vulnerable population truly good if it sells out another vulnerable population? My gut and moral compass say no. Conversations with individuals who have long been immersed in the Texas political system, though, suggest otherwise. “Select one cause to champion,” one civil servant advised us, “and consider everything else as sacrificable for that one cause.” Another stressed the importance of relationships and symbolic gestures in this environment. One snub could become the lost vote that kills a bill, or worse, suffocates it in technicalities.

If the political arena were a game of four-dimensional chess, these strategies would make logical sense. However, when the casualties of a strategic move are the ways of life of very real people, the game no longer makes ethical sense.

The Recognition of Futility

We were warned during orientation that those of us with strong boundaries would struggle in this environment. At the time, I assumed the statement was referring to work-life boundaries. I’m starting to realize that it may be more relevant to my stubborn moral compass.

The Begrudging Acknowledgement

One of the LSGers (a fellow intern with the Legislative Study Group, who is also my roommate) has often reminded me that flexible principles are more effective than rigid ones. I suppose it’s much more difficult to finesse a large, stumpy block of pure, stubborn principle through the narrow halls of the Legislature than it is to reach out with lithe tendrils of softened, accommodating, hopeful principle.

The Unwieldy Compromise

The truth is, there are no true Supermen or Superwomen in the political realm. Contrary to what sensationalist tweets, comments, and media say, there really no Dexters either (on either side, believe it or not).

This may also be news to some, but most politicians are, in fact, human. And humans are notoriously, infuriatingly, bewilderingly complicated. I may be showing my naivety here just one month into the legislative session, but I still believe that most people work towards what they think is right. Perhaps that perception is skewed by life events or an individual’s particular vantage point, but I believe (or maybe I need to believe) that everyone aims for what presents as ‘good’ in their reality. We’ll see if my thinking changes closer to the end of session.

A Return to Futility: An Ode to Ineffectiveness

Perhaps one does manage to pin down the exact nature of that elusive ‘good.’ And perhaps one finds their definition to be the same as mine: aiming to meet the unmet needs of underserved vulnerable populations. Unfortunately, that definition, and any definition, fails to fully capture what ‘good’ is.

It’s relatively simple to be ineffectively ‘good.’ In fact, many well-intentioned political actions have every intention of fitting within this definition of ‘good’ in their protests, social media revolutions, awareness campaigns, and challenging of norms. Yet, when it comes down to the real details – the strategy, the statistics, the reality checks, the fiscal feasibility – the energy putters out, and consequently, so does the movement.

A Renewed Hope?

An effectively ‘good,’ political action though, whether a movement or legislation, seems to be more subtle, a little quieter – not nearly as sexy.

An individual who has watched the Texas Legislature for most of his life spoke to our group earlier last month and encouraged us to think in terms of the inch. What he meant was that sometimes the smallest gears of government are easier to change than the enticing, but clunky cogs that time has fused in place.

Breaking down the minute steps of a bureaucratic procedure to analyze and eventually streamline the process is probably not your idea of powerful and dynamic social justice. But what if that resulted in increased enrollment for children’s insurance and ballooned the number of Texas children who have access to medical care?

After all, even the largest whale is propelled by the tiny biological rowing mechanism of the actin and myosin molecules.

Recognizing an Impending Evolution of Self

My principles are still everything to me, but I’m slowly coming to the realization that my options are to hold tight to my principles as they exist now and risk gaining nothing, or to allow them to be yielding enough to accept the nuances and complexities of life, potentially gaining small, but important ground.

But what does that mean for my position as a policy analyst for the Legislative Study Group?

Stay tuned to find out.

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About GCSW Legislative Interns

This blog is brought to you courtesy of The Graduate College of Social Work's Austin Legislative Internship Program. The College selects graduate MSW students to intern at the Texas Legislature during its legislative session every two years. Student interns work as full-time staffers in the Legislature, either as policy analysts with the Legislative Study Group, a Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives, or in legislators’ offices. Here, they will share their unique experiences!
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3 Responses to Effective Good: An Illusive, Elusive White Whale in the Political Waters

  1. Pingback: Personal Privilege Speech • SJS – Inspired Forums

  2. Pingback: Personal Privilege Speech • SJS

  3. Pingback: Personal Privilege Speech | Austin Legislative Internship Program

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