As I prepare to vote, heavy on my mind is compromise and what we become as a result of it.
I was a vegetarian for about 20 years, primarily for ethical reasons. When I stopped eating meat, it was not a common thing to do in the Midwest. People didn’t understand. But over the last couple of decades, people have changed, except for the ones who haven’t. People now understand and try to accommodate vegetarianism, except for the ones who don’t. It’s much easier to get vegetarian food, except in places where it isn’t, which is still a great many places.
One of those places is fast-food giant Arby’s, which boasts a “Meat Mountain Sandwich.” The first Democratic committee meeting I ever attended was held at an Arby’s in rural Indiana. I had been talking to political movers and shakers about a potential run for Congress for a couple of weeks, and it was time to put faces with names. I walked in to see a table full of somber, middle-aged white men gathered around a few crammed-together tables. At the head was a man taking notes, who eventually detected from my fidgety eavesdropping that I was looking for someone. “Oh, the Democrats? They’re in the back room.”
Sure enough, there were four people in the “back room” of this Arby’s. One of them wore an oversized suit and had a shirt stained with ink running from a monogrammed gold pen jammed into his pocket. He was the chair of the county party and, like me, a lawyer. Right away, he asked me if I wanted to go to trial with him next week. I politely declined, and he went on to explain that we had to “take the Democratic party back” from “all the left-wing nut-jobs.” I excused myself and bid $10 on an oversized “UNION PROUD 2000” button from a silent auction they had set up before heading to the counter. I won the button.
Most earnest politicians truly don’t want to compromise their principles for the sake of political expediency. For well-meaning public servants, your principles are what draw you to public service in the first place. They’re important. They matter. And yet, my foray into electoral politics leads me to conclude that every politician — and to an extent every voter — must compromise their core tenets to some degree. On that day, my first day as a political animal, I did just that. I bought a big, nasty, greasy beef and cheddar sandwich, doused it in horsey sauce and ate it in about three bites. It was delicious.
Why did I do it? I was nervous, but I wanted to look collected. I was in an unfamiliar place doing unfamiliar things, and I wanted to remove unnecessary stressors like, “What can I eat here?” But, mostly, I was hungry and wanted to be full.
Over the next few months, I ate just about anything: breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches, deep-fried mushrooms stuffed with Cajun catfish bites, gas station chicken gizzards, taco meat dropped in a fun-size bag of Fritos, food truck sushi, hot dogs handmade by the local sheriff and the like. Hell’s gates had swung open and a river of animal flesh poured from its Stygian depths into my mouth. Curiously, throughout this time, I maintained a meat-free mindset. “Can’t eat that; I’m a Vegetarian,” I’d shout through a mouthful of boiled chicken, bits of ham from overcooked green beans dangling from my beard. Rather than stopping to think about it, I just rationalized it in whatever way was convenient and went on. “I don’t have time to think about what I’m eating… I’m consuming 5,000 calories a day but burning 10,000… If I didn’t eat this meatloaf, I’d have nothing to eat all day… Look man, I’m in survival mode over here… You have no idea,” etc. Looking back, I genuinely believed that I was a temporarily embarrassed herbivore.
Months after our meeting, the county chair from Arby’s publicly voiced his support for Trump, and Democratic Party officials demanded his resignation, which he gave. The thinking, as I recall, was that Trumpism was something we were all strongly against; we couldn’t stomach any connection to it. Let the GOP slide into authoritarianism, into fascism, into unashamed racism; we’re better than that. As far as I know, the former chair still calls himself a Democrat.
The death of a fundamental component of one’s identity can be slow and painful. I like animals, and I don’t want them to suffer, so I stopped eating them. I didn’t have a very good reason to start again after 20 years. It was difficult to accept that I no longer was the thing that I once was and to know that I still believed in what made me that thing in the first place. But I can’t go around eating steak burgers and still get to call myself a vegetarian. I’m really a guy who will eat just about anything when he’s hungry.
For the sake of morality, for the sake of consistency, for the sake of sanity, we must know what we stand against and avoid becoming that thing. As such, we strive to define our principles and keep them as uncompromised as possible. Too much compromise and our identities die.
That’s what is weighing on me this week; How much compromise is too much? Is it more important to win an election — even a critically important election — or not to become the thing you stand against? If, for example, a Democratic candidate endorses and normalizes Trumpism, the separation of refugee families, the destruction of women’s bodily autonomy, authoritarian violence, ceaseless war on ill-defined enemies, or a stupid fucking border wall, what have they become? What would we voters become by voting for those candidates? Would we still be ourselves, or something different?
When we are hungry and want to be full, it turns out that we will eat just about anything.