Pity and Piety: musings on third-party voting

Ideological purity is very appealing to a certain type of person. It means that you can engage in something, feel part of a cause or a movement far grander than you are alone, and it gives you purpose.

My MA thesis, and possibly work in the future, focused on a group of ex-communist authors from the 1930s-1950s, who basically signed up for communism and then realised what a terrible idea that was. In order to honour their difficult decision, and to rescue their legacies from the hands of the American anti-communist movement, I explain that I believe their struggle can be viewed in the lens of ‘pity vs. piety.’ It’s a neat comparative I came up with which summarises my argument. In essence, the desire to follow an absolute line, as opposed to bending to personal morality.

I’m not going to run you through the entirety of that history today. Perhaps you could point me in the direction of a book deal, or some doctoral funding? Because I’m going to be harping on about this forever more anyway. Basically, in this blog post, I’m applying the general methodological frame of my work to the current mess that is the American election and Trump’s impending presidency.

In essence, the idea that you have to choose between two parties in order to pick your president is bizarre- but that’s a whole other problem. Voting third-party is essentially a vote that you’re throwing to the wind: you’re sticking by your principles, but you know you’re going to lose the fight.  However, this blog post isn’t an unmitigated attack on the idea of third-party voting (talk about throwing things to the wind). I know that if I was actually given a vote in the US I’d prevaricate and posture, and weigh up the third-party options, because Hillary Clinton was by no means the candidate that the Democrats deserved. In the end, I think I would have voted for her, though.

Ideological purity is very appealing to a certain type of person. It means that you can engage in something, feel part of a cause or a movement far grander than you are alone, and it gives you purpose. If you’re quite a dramatic person, you might think it lends you a certain historical ‘correctness’: it is easy to believe in the absolute validity of your actions, because the ideology you cling to is the best kind of abstract truth. I drew these ideas together when writing about the allure of early-twentieth-century Soviet communism, whereas the people I wrote about drew a comparison with religion. There’s a certain easiness in disavowing choice and individuality in order to obey doctrine. Real bravery comes when you think for yourself.

“We have thrown overboard all conventions, our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logic; we are sailing without ethical ballast.” (Koestler, Darkness at Noon).

So if that is ideological piety, then pity is its direct opposite. It’s the expression of humanity, of love and of kindness, which comes when you turn your back on your ideology. This could mean valuing the individual above the collective, it could mean treating a hated ‘other’ with kindness, or it could mean voting against your initial wishes. Ideological piety only works if you’re not the one suffering the effects of your actions. Personally, being white, I could have dithered over my electoral choices in this election. Being a woman, I know that there was only really one choice. After the things I read for this piece of work, I think I would have been actively campaigning to make people think about what their third-party vote really means.

The Pity part of my thesis explains that the greatest, bravest thing you can do is to extend a hand of kindness and understanding to others: think of the day-to-day reality they live, which your choices affect. Voting third-party is all very well and good, until you remember that Trump won. What will happen next is anybody’s guess, but it’s going to come from all of our worst political nightmares. Thinking about the impact on POC in America, the LGBTQ community, disabled Americans, the environment, animals, and all kinds of other marginalised groups in society has to make you leave your ideological bubble. Education and social connections are the only way to show people how little there is to divide us, and how much we need each other.

“Satan, on the contrary, is thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic. He reads Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel; he is cold and unmerciful to mankind, out of a kind of mathematical mercifulness. He is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him: to become a slaughterer, in order to abolish slaughtering, to sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it–an abstract and geometric love.” (Koestler, Darkness at Noon).

The authors I wrote about were a difficult bunch. Unsurprisingly, lots of them felt spiritually isolated or lonely when they left communism. Some moved on to religion, others went to the hard right. They traded in one kind of systemic ideological structure for another, regardless of what the ideology stands for.

“The Communist novice, subjecting his soul to the canon law of the Kremlin, felt something of the release which Catholicism also brings to the intellectual, wearied and worried by the privilege of freedom.” (Richard Crossman MP, The God that Failed)

But the rest tended to avoid institutions. They fought for their own causes, and they wrote novels and created art that was intended to inspire and educate others. Most importantly, many reached out to the working-classes of Britain and Western Europe, in order to create a class-consciousness which has since dissipated. They turned their backs on the structure and the actions that communism insisted upon, because it was not an appropriate spiritual home for the own beliefs- an older, socialist faith in the inherent kindness of humanity and the redeeming power of helping other people. A faith in a collective made up of brave, diverse individuals, who react and disagree, but still stand together. A faith which isn’t much solace at the moment, but is all that we have left.

“The addiction to myth is as tenacious and difficult to cure as any other addiction.” (Koestler, The God that Failed).


Arthur Koestler – Darkness at Noon

Richard Crossman MP (editor) – The God that Failed

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