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Once you’ve been around enough elected officials, you realize that most have a palace guard — aides who are extraordinarily loyal and demand loyalty from others. Many public leaders create this environment because they want a sense of security. If you’re standing in the spotlight, making high-stakes decisions and coming under attack, it helps to have devoted supporters nearby.

Loyalty has been prized for ages. Cicero wrote: “Nothing is more noble, nothing more venerable, than loyalty.” Eric Felten, author of Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, described it as “a glue that holds people together in a common endeavor.” James Carville, a top aide to President Clinton wrote the book Stickin’: The Case for Loyalty to promote the role of loyalty in politics. 

But in the world of governing, loyalty can quickly get distorted into something dangerous. Taken to an extreme, loyalty reveals deeply troubling features about — and fosters deeply troubling characteristics in — those demanding it. It also damages those acceding to such demands.

The 2016 primaries elevated a tandem of presidential nominees possibly unparalleled in their combined prioritization of loyalty. Hillary Clinton, as documented in Shattered, “priz[ed] loyalty most among human traits.” After her 2008 election loss, she rummaged through old emails of campaign staffers to unearth disloyalty. She and her husband even assigned “loyalty scores” to members of Congress. 

President Trump is growing infamous for his insistence on loyalty. He evidently asked then-FBI director Comey to pledge loyalty. Entire articles have been written about Trump’s surrounding himself with loyalists throughout his career. He deploys subordinates to publicly display their loyalty (even if he subsequently undermines them).

Of course, there’s nothing new about the West Wing’s magnetism for those needing and those providing loyalty: FDR (Hopkins), Bill Clinton (Blumenthal), Nixon (Haldeman), LBJ (everyone). But we seem to talk too little about the enormous risks associated with our most powerful leaders’ prioritizing loyalty among staff. 

First, governing is often about power and compulsion. Ensuring power is used wisely and compulsion is used sparingly requires firm limits. Some are provided by our institutions, such as federalism and individual rights, but many are provided by philosophy, principles, and recognized codes of conduct. When a tough decision must be made or carried out, a leader can appeal to an array of sources of legitimacy: “Say this because it’s true;” “Do that because it maximizes benefits across society;” “Continue this because it is our longstanding, robust tradition;” “Stop that because it violates human dignity.” 

None of these arguments is dispositive — we often disagree about what’s true, what’s utilitarian, or what constitutes human dignity. But they represent shared values that we all recognize as valid in governing. As such, they provide an opportunity for transparency, inquiry, debate, and compromise.

When a leader invokes loyalty — if you’re loyal, you’ll do this — it’s likely because that leader cannot rely on other sources of legitimacy. Indeed, if the statement were true, if the decision were legal, or if the order were moral, the leader could defend it as such. When unable to do so, leaders resort to claims of loyalty. In this way, loyalty can be like Samuel Johnson’s line about patriotism: the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Second, when a subordinate accepts a boss’s demand for loyalty as sufficient rationale for a decision, that staffer is subordinating her own reason and conscience. That staffer is not using the arguments of Plato, Aquinas, Hume, or Kant; not applying lessons learned from parents, neighbors, or history; and not analyzing, deliberating, or reasoning. Instead, that staffer is substituting the leader’s judgment for his or her own. That not only allows the leader’s judgment to carry vastly more weight, it also allows the staffer to feel no sense of responsibility for the content of the choice. 

As a result, the leader’s subsequent decision-making will be formulated in a toxic environment. We can trust neither the seriousness nor the rectitude of decisions made by leaders who need not appeal to justice, morality, ideology, history, or other legitimate justifications in order to earn their subordinates’ support. And if a leader’s colleagues routinely fail to pressure-test his or her ideas, those decisions will be extremely fragile. 

We have to recognize that loyalty will inevitably come into conflict with other principles — truth, justice, morality, etc. Felten rightly notes that loyalty is vexing because fidelity to one thing requires infidelity to another. Similarly, the 19th century American philosopher Josiah Royce believed loyalty was only true when tied to a just cause.

The point is that if you over-prioritize loyalty, other essential goods get de-prioritized. And those other goods are far more important to sound public decision-making. 

During these terribly polarized times, we seem increasingly to find comfort in associating with a tribe. When we, our colleagues, our leaders, and their staffs are putting a premium on loyalty, we must ask: “What’s being sacrificed?”

Andy Smarick is the Morgridge Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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