During the 2016 presidential campaign, an article appeared making the season's most notable, most forceful intellectual case to elect Donald Trump. It was called "The Flight 93 Election," and its unfortunate metaphor suggested that our country was hurtling toward its doom, one way or another.
"2016 is the Flight 93 election: Charge the cockpit or you die," wrote the pseudonymous author, later revealed to be Trump adviser Michael Anton. "You may die anyway. You — or the leader of your party — may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane."
What did this have to do with Trump? Well, Anton suggested, Trump might be a total disaster as president — but Hillary Clinton would definitely bring ruin upon the country. Roll the dice with Trump, he wrote, and conservatives might get lucky.
"A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto," he wrote. "With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances."
It was a stunningly dark and cynical piece of advocacy. These days, though, the "Flight 93" logic permeates our politics.
You can see it in the dueling sex scandals afflicting our major political parties. On the Republican side is Roy Moore, the Senate candidate credibly accused of groping and harassing young and underage girls during the 1970s. On the Democratic side is Sen. Al Franken, accused (with photographic evidence) of groping and harassment during a USO trip a decade ago, and similar misdeeds since by other women.
Moore and Franken's partisan defenders say almost exactly the same thing: "Maybe our guy did a bad thing. But the other side is so bad and our cause is so just that we can't just walk away from him."
Here's Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, supporting Moore: "I certainly have no reason to disbelieve any of" the accusers, she said. "I believe in the Republican Party and what we stand for, and most important, we need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on things like Supreme Court justices, other appointments the Senate has to confirm and make major decisions. And so that's what I plan to do, is vote for the Republican nominee, Roy Moore."
Here's feminist scholar Kate Harding, advocating against Franken's resignation: "If we set this precedent in the interest of demonstrating our party's solidarity with harassed and abused women, we're only going to drain the swamp of people who, however flawed, still regularly vote to protect women's rights and freedoms. The legislative branch will remain chockablock with old, white Republican men who regard women chiefly as sex objects and unpaid housekeepers, and we'll show them how staunchly Democrats oppose their misogynistic attitudes by handing them more power."
This is "Flight 93" thinking all over again: A candidate or official might be awful, but the real disaster would be to act on principle and disown them — and thus risk giving the other party an inch. The evangelical Christians who back Moore thus assure themselves that while Moore probably behaved very badly and isn't worthy of the Senate, electing a Democrat in his stead would definitely hurt their most cherished causes. And so they end up compromising their moral stance because they're supposedly looking at "the big picture." The same goes for Franken-allied feminists who otherwise fight to hold abusers and harassers accountable.
Somehow, in these debates, principles almost always lose to power. And in a way, that's at least understandable: Without power, it is very difficult to build the kind of country you want.
The problem is that there are never any end of reasons to defer principles for the sake of power. When that happens, the end result is precisely the same as if we had no principles at all — we fill Congress with lecherous old men whose values and actions we despise, and then we convince ourselves we did it for reasons both realistic and noble.
There are ramifications. Such a pattern helps breed cynicism among the electorate, who can't be blamed for believing both parties will drop their ideals in a hot second if it means grabbing a bit more power. That ends up being corrosive to our democracy and its institutions.
Which means, ultimately, that "The Flight 93 Election" logic is self-fulfilling. Treat every election, every political decision, as if civilization-ending disaster is imminent, and you can justify all kinds of bad actions. That confirms to the other side that we really are as bad as they think we are. And that, in turn, lets them justify actions that we despise. Round and round we go in a never-ending spiral, until pluralism dies and the disaster we were trying to avoid finally arrives.
It's time to aim higher, while we still can.