Virginia In Chains

At the beginning of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, the author makes the provocative statement that “man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains”.[1]  Although some theorists argue that we ought not take Rousseau’s idea of chains literally, but rather as the ties that bind us together in society, [2] when considering politics in the state of Virginia, one can find political activists and politicians weighed down considerably by the demands of their political associations. 

Unlike most other states in the country, the two, state recognized, political parties in Virginia often dictate that citizens of the Commonwealth pledge loyalty to the party as a precondition for participation.  For example, during the 2016 Republican Party presidential primary, the Republican Party intended to make primary voters sign a document pledging to support whoever won their party’s nomination in the general election that followed.  However, under public pressure they ended up scrapping this plan.[3]  Nevertheless, the party continues to maintain its right to use such requirements and declares that anyone who violates this legally unenforceable oath “shall not be qualified for participation in party actions as defined in Article I for a period of four (4) years.” [4]

It isn’t merely the GOP who uses loyal oaths; the Democratic Party employs them as well.  Perhaps the most well-known rejection of these tactics comes from former Democratic U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd Jr.  He considered loyalty oaths intolerable and ended up leaving his party and declaring himself an independent when he was pressed to pledge support for the 1972 Democratic Presidential candidate without first knowing who he or she was and what principles he or she advocated.  “‘The course I am taking is an uncharted one,’ Byrd said in announcing his decision on statewide television on March 17, 1970. ‘But I would rather be a free man than a captive senator.’”[5]

According to my understanding of Rousseau, I believe he would approve of Byrd’s actions arguing that this kind of loyalty oath to a political party would be corrupt given that one side demands unquestioned loyalty to itself without offering anything in return except for the pittance of participation in a process which the state forces each taxpayer to fund.  As Rousseau explains, “to say a man gives himself for nothing is an absurd and incomprehensible statement; such an action is illegitimate and void”[6]  He goes on to add that “Whether made by one man addressing another, or by a man addressing a nation, this statement will be equally senseless: ‘I make a covenant between us which is entirely for my good, which I will observe as long as I please, and which you will observe as long as I please” [7] 

In the Old Dominion, a person may begin his or her political life free but, perhaps even without realizing it, soon find him or herself chained to a political party, a party which ironically declares itself as a party promoting liberty.


[1] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1994. The Social Contract. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 45.

[2] Kaplan, Joshua. 2006. Codes of Power: Political Thought from Plato’s Cave to Game Theory.

[3] Vozzella, Laura, and Antonio Olivo. 2016. “Virginia GOP Drops Plan for Loyalty Pledge, but Maybe Too Late for Some Voters.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/virginia-gop-drops-plan-for-loyalty-pledge-but-maybe-too-late-for-primary/2016/01/30/2c65d7a8-c799-11e5-a4aa-f25866ba0dc6_story.html (October 8, 2019).

[4] “MEMBER RESOURCES.” Republican Party of Virginia. https://virginia.gop/member-resources/ (October 8, 2019).

[5] Schapiro, Jeff E., and Richmond Times-Dispatch. 2013. “Byrd Shaped Politics in Va. for Many Years.” Roanoke Times. https://www.roanoke.com/news/politics/byrd-shaped-politics-in-va-for-many-years/article_7bba3fa0-e7f0-57db-b2b2-8ef85e37432e.html (October 8, 2019).

[6] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1994. The Social Contract. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 50.

[7] Ibid. 53.

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