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Knowing Which “Hill to Die On”

(Graeme Jennings)

Idealists, in order to change the systems in which they exist, must usually remain in that system.”

Senator Bernie Sanders has recently taken a stand in favor of the thousands of Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, who are set to vote on forming the first Amazon union in the United States. This is not the first time Senator Sanders has fought for progressive issues such as these; he ran two popular presidential campaigns focused, in large part, on raising the average American’s standard of living. After his defeat in those two races, it seemed that the Democratic Party had little appetite for his progressivism. Yet, Senator Sanders endorsed both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-candidate Joe Biden anyway, despite being diametrically opposed to many of their favored policies. Rather than loudly bickering about his defeat in the Democratic Party structure, he continued to work within it. 

Now, here he is in 2021, with more Democrats supporting his policies and with a much louder voice on Capitol Hill. While many have written about these events before, I think the actions of Senator Sanders serve as a perfect illustration of a principle colloquialized as “knowing which hill to die on.” 

In contrast to Senator Sanders, look across the aisle to Congressman Justin Amash. In May of 2019, Congressman Amash decided that his moral and political principles compelled him to be the first Republican to support a potential impeachment of then-President Donald Trump. At the time, this seemed to be a commendable event, a politician with a moral compass standing up for what he saw as right. However, “Russiagate” was not what the media made it out to be, especially compared to other arguably more troubling aspects of President Trump’s tenure. The American people, especially those on the Right, would have been better served by Congressman Amash’s moral position at other points. In short, the Congressman chose the wrong hill on which to die. 

Many admired Congressman Amash as a principled person, but did his actions in 2019 really change anything? Idealists, in order to change the systems in which they exist, must usually remain in that system. Congressman Amash’s decision to leave the Republican Party in July of 2019 and then not to run for reelection meant that he was no longer even in Congress to vote in favor of President Trump’s second—and far more justified—impeachment.

Many of the most influential figures in modern history had to wrestle with their moral principles in imperfect institutions. According to Edmund Morris in his 1979 biography, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, future President Theodore Roosevelt had not planned to pursue politics. His family saw politics as fundamentally immoral work, replete with corruption and greed, and, thus, far beneath someone who hailed from such an upstanding, elite family. However, instead of retaining moral purity by abstaining, President Roosevelt fought the corruption that inherently sullied politics throughout his long career in public service, masterfully picking the battles that he could win and not expending precious political capital on those he would inevitably lose. 

Interestingly enough, the economist John Maynard Keynes faced a similar dilemma, as described by Zachary Carter in his 2020 book The Price of Peace. As Keynes pulled financial strings working at His Majesty’s Treasury during World War I, pacifist friends loathed him for abetting what they saw as an immoral conflict. However, Keynes recognized that he could do more good at the time within public office than from protesting outside of it. 

So neither Keynes nor President Roosevelt shied away from opportunities to reform the system. And, in doing so, they pressed on, living to die on that larger hill. 

Now, there are limits to this, of course. It would not have been permissible, say, for President Roosevelt to accept bribes or for Senator Sanders to support policies that openly contradicted his values. But, to be clear, this line is not easy to draw. President Roosevelt, for instance, was on both sides of history regarding race relations. While he was the one to invite the first African American to dine at the White House, Booker T. Washington, he also was complicit in The Brownsville Affair: the mass dishonorable discharge of 167 black soldiers in 1906. Indeed, President Roosevelt made some compromises that, in retrospect, he should not have; however, with that said, the nation would have been far worse off had he been politically inflexible.

In a broader sense, it is always easier to decry a broken system and claim it needs to be rebuilt. Dreaming of an ideal system does not take much mental or moral fortitude; one’s ideas are rarely challenged in this process. When a young activist reads the news and concludes that the system must be torn down, he is eschewing the difficult (but necessary) dialogue that democracy requires. The correct thing to do is not always evident; however, through entering the fray, the best approach is often reached. At the very least, attempting serious reform is a better option than resorting to revolution.

This concept should not be confined only to politics; it can apply to any organization or discipline. Many young people today, for instance, look at business, particularly big business, with disgust. But if every idealistic person abstained from working at large companies, what would become of our economy? To this point, one must realize the value brought by those working within the system, rather than simply ascribing collective guilt. Just as Senator Sanders is not a pawn of greed and corruption by virtue of his political position, not every chief executive officer is automatically a robber baron.  

One often must be a part of the system to change it effectively. Senator Sanders knows this; this is why he was able even to endorse those who had opposed many of his ideas. Those ready to jump ship at the first sign of something they disagree with will almost certainly jump too soon. It takes a stronger person to enact change, wrestling with complicated moral issues instead of abstaining from them altogether. President Roosevelt, the one who spoke so passionately of the proverbial “man in the arena,” would almost certainly agree.

Jordan Lawrence is soon to graduate from the University of Michigan with a degree in economics and will then work in the financial industry. 

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