AKIE BERMISS: I guess it would be hard for me to describe myself as a hardcore liberal. Not me. Certainly, born a Democrat, liberal-leaning values, and in my ideal world everything is green, recyclable government-by-the-people. However, whenever I start to consider problems in the imperfect and corporeal world before me, I become a sort of Democratic pragmatist. That is, I know that if I have some liberal fantasy I’ve been nursing in the back of my mind then there is problem someone out there with a non-liberal utopian paradise that they’d like to see. I think adhering to core principles is a great virtue especially as an academic or theorist, as a sophist or teacher, or something like that. But when it comes to governing — and, let’s be clear, by “governing” we mean ruling/guiding/helping/punishing a large group of people — there is simply no effective way to be both an effective idealist and an effective ruler. This sounds like pooh-poohing, I know, and my liberal friends have already condemned me to an atheistic perdition because of it. Nonetheless, I think if you really look at history, you’ll find it to be true.
On top of that, I think idealists and fundamentalists also make themselves very vulnerable where patience is concerned. They tend to think in large terms when considering history, but are very impatient about making history. This is not only damaging to cooperating and negotiation with people who may not agree with said idealist, it can also undermine the efficacy of the idealist’s own agenda. Hurrying to create sweeping institutional change can is likely to make the change unable to keep and lead to rage and disenfranchisement. I think idealists tend to forget that there are other idealists out there who think differently than they. That these idealists may also be smart, well-meaning people. And that, in order for them to come to the table for the good of all, one needs to be accommodating of their vision. This is the nature of humanity after all, isn’t it? There is no one clearly right choice. We’ve gotten where we are because of a mixture of good and bad, well-meaning and malignant actions that cumulatively add up to history. And one must maneuver with a knowledge of how history has a bearing on things. Its like moving a large body around in space, or trying to turn a big ship at sea — you can’t just swing it around. In fact, the bigger the ship the more difficult adroit maneuvers are likely to be. It is the same with history. The longer history gets the more precise we need to be in the things we do and say.
And that, in part, is why I found the opinion piece written by Drew Westen (for the New York Times) so offensive last week. It was an idealist upbraiding of Barack Obama’s tenure as President thus far. But instead of taking even the meanest bits of pragmatism into account it was a purely idealistic screed. It reads less like an intellect-informed opinion piece and more like a revolutionary mission statement. Westen was at the lectern preaching. And to be fair, those are fun to write! I used to write things like that in high school all the time. In fact, when I was seventeen or so, I liked to describe myself as a revolutionary. I fought back against every little sortie pragmatist associates would make. I raged against the system, as it were. I lambasted public education, I lambasted private education. Capitalism — flawed. Socialism — naive. I disliked any one who I thought traded in their absolute moral convictions in the name of compromise. Indeed, it could be said I raged against the concept of compromise. Here’s the thing, though: I was a kid.
That brand of absolute conviction and righteousness is really just amusing in a child. Its a kind of misguided — but maybe impressive ?! — precociousness. But it can’t be applied to the real world in any lasting way. Why? Because the “real world” is not just a set of yes or no questions. Its not about right and wrong. To borrow a cliche, its not all black and white. The “real world” is, now more than ever, a complex system of systems that are all working in balance and counter-balance with one another. Any one who tries to sell you on a something being a “simple matter of [Blank]” is — pardon the expression — full of crap. The real world is not even subject to logical laws. Life and civilization and being are almost as subject to randomness as they are to any kind of natural selection of clear cut order. There is no such thing as perfect capitalism or perfect socialism. No such thing as a perfect theocracy, no matter how battened down the interpretations of the religion may be. And this must hold true, as well, for the religion of liberalism.
Rail against the president if you need someone to bluster at, my friends. But don’t confuse fantasy with constructive criticism. Westen goes so far in his article as to rewrite Present Obama’s Inauguration speech in order to improve up on it. I think its worth including the full, hypothetical, somehow supernaturally reassuring speech exactly as it appears in Westen’s article. Witness:
“I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.”
Westen goes on to assert that while this isn’t policy, but rather very clearly is a heaping mound of reassuring, non-specific rhetoric, that somehow — Westen asserts — will lead to policy moves purely on the strength of the words. Now if that isn’t fantastical, I don’t know what its. And it’s thinking like this which I think is harmful to the liberal agenda. Instead of being wise and pragmatic and understanding in regards to a tumbling economy, rising unemployment, and world stage full of the slings and arrows of outrageous diplomacy — we are left with people who refuse to compromise, refuse to see things from another side. Its no good, I’m tellng you. As cathartic as a little POTUS-bashing may be, lets not let that gratification spoil things. Obama has made great strides as President and pushes for a very liberal stance, but he is not willing to be some sort of doomsday device for the GOP. Nor warm milk for the liberal electorate.
We’re not teenagers, after all. Adults know sometimes life gets tricky. You persevere.
HOWARD MEGDAL: So let me get this straight: I’m supposed to be livid at a Democratic president who managed to pass universal health care, the largest government investment in the country since the new deal, significant financial reform, and a host of other accomplishments big and small because if only he’d given the right speech, even more could have been done?
I’m inclined to agree with Ezra Klein- more couldn’t have been done, or at the very least, what other things could have happened were unlikely to make a significant difference. Ultimately, this president will need to go into re-election with the economy he has, not the one he wishes he had if Congress had okayed more stimulus spending.
Simply put, that the president made the tactical error of thinking his opponents would, at some point, agree to something is clear, in that it meant he probably wasted some time. But if his opponents wouldn’t give him anything anyway, doesn’t that simply mean he missed the opportunity to-what, fail to pass additional bills? Give additional speeches? It isn’t clear.
The messaging has finally caught up to the reality. But the reality, frankly, shows a ton of accomplishment from this president among things that matter to liberals. Disappointment at the world makes sense. Anger at this president doesn’t.