In Defense of “Abstract Ideals”
I’ve already been getting this clip of President
Bush Obama explaining why we need to keep the Bush tax cuts for the rich emailed to me. Josh Marshall says that this is Obama demonstrating his personal political philosophy. There always was a contradiction between Obama’s “hope and change” rhetoric and his “bipartisanship” rhetoric. Today, Obama clearly demonstrated which side he preferred. “Obama then responded forcefully, saying that the positions of such people on the left would result in getting nothing done, except having a “sanctimonious” pride in the purity of their own positions.”
I had a couple of responses. The first is that if Obama is going to call us left critics out, he shouldn’t start out his insult with a big flapping lie. Which is exactly what he does.
So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for, for a hundred years – but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get, that would have affected maybe a couple million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people, and the potential for lower premiums for a hundred million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.”[Emphasis mine]
This is just not true. All Americans will not be covered by Obama’s health care plan. Millions, probably tens of millions, will remain uninsured. According to a recent estimate, 8.3% of nonelderly adults will remain without health coverage. According to the CBO (those fucking commies) some 23 million Americans will lack health care in 2019. Most of the rest will be forced by the power of the state to use their own money to purchase a product from a private, profit-seeking, corporation, which will use said profits to buy its CEO a bigger yacht. Which was what Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation were fighting for, not Democrats during the last hundred years.
And I guess that would be sanctimonious of me to point out that thousands of Americans will continue to die because they lack health care.
But lets get to the meat of the question. The core of Obama’s point is that liberal critics are irresponsible to hold him to high abstract standards when he has the opportunity to get something concrete done. “Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position, and no victories for the American people.”
This is normally summed up, in the most clichéd phrase ever, as “not making the perfect the enemy of the good.”
The philistine always loves to juxtapose ideals and pragmatism, normally in order to pat themselves on the back for abandoning their principles. This is exactly the “vulgar pragmatism” that Obama is articulating here. I’d like to suggest a number of reasons why this isn’t just immoral, but often politically unwise (even, one might say, unpragmatic).
The first is that Obama is the leader of a political movement. Or he was, at least. Masses of people don’t get inspired by a message of “we’re going to compromise everything you believe in at the first chance we get.” That doesn’t get them to the polls or out knocking on the doors. Instead, the language of compromise and pragmatism is the preferred language of insulated elites, who wish to deactivate mass political movements, not of self-confident democratic leaders. Moreover, it undermines democracy when our elected leaders are unwilling to follow through on the promises they made when we elected them.
And there is a good reason for this. Politics is most effective when individuals feel a personal connection to it. Voting is, as the political scientists love to tell us, normally a totally irrational activity (our individual vote will almost never change an election). But it is an expressive activity, as most politics are. We participate, at whatever level we do, in order to express to ourselves and the world that we are the type of person who cares about social justice, or gender equality, or the environment. This is not a shallow thing, but rather the basis of many noble actions, as well as many personal stories of self-improvement. When the leader of the left party so eagerly strikes a sordid deal with the plutocrats on the right, it makes us all feel dirty, undermining our eagerness to ever participate again.
The second is tactical. You don’t win negotiations by bragging in advance about how willing you are to compromise. This appears to be Matthew Yglesias’ critique of Obama’s position. You win by appearing that you won’t back down until the absolute last minute. This gets to the core of my strategic dispute with Obama. If I honestly believed that he had fought as hard as he possibly could for the public option, or to repeal these tax cuts, or for cap and trade, or to repeal DADT, or to limit the size of the banks, or for EFCA, or… (well you get my point), but came up short, I’d be alright with his compromises. There is no shame in trying as hard as you can but failing. My discontent comes from the feeling that he never went to bat for any of our priorities in the first place. That his first offer was already a compromise, and that as he presented that compromise to the world, he was already signaling that he was willing to make 5 more compromises. That, I think, is inexcusable.
Third, no one respects a leader who isn’t willing to draw a line in the sand. One might think that the signature domestic policy of George Bush was such a line. Obama apparently loves to think of himself as Lincoln. But its worth remembering that Lincoln was constantly being pressured, in the winter of 1860, to accept the Crittenden Compromise . He never did, and instead stuck to what he campaigned on. Its true that Lincoln was rarely in the avant-garde. But once he took a position he held it. Lincoln started small but grew. All we’d like is an Obama who fights for what he campaigned on. Instead, Obama is starting big and shrinking.
But the most important thing is to acknowledge what you lose when you fetishize compromise and pragmatism. You lose any sense of heroism or courage. Any idea that, as someone used to say, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Any hope that the contours of power, as they currently exist, can change.
And this is the big thing. This pathetic worship of bipartisanship and compromise necessarily accepts the current structures of power, and tries to negotiate among them. It accepts that the hospital lobby is powerful and strikes a deal with them, it accepts the rules of the senate rather than trying to change them, it accepts the power of the banks rather than mobilizing a movement against them. In the process it closes out the possibility that we could create new avenues of political power. Again and again, Obama has preferred bringing the current stakeholders together to negotiate rather than attempt to create new stakeholders or change the terms of the debate.
There is a word for a politics that lacks this hope that the world as it is can improve: conservatism. As Emerson wrote, “The castle, which conservatism is set to defend, is the actual state of things, good and bad. The project of innovation is the best possible state of things.”
This problem—of a vulgar pragmatism which accepts the power structure as it is and simply tries to negotiate among it various sectors—is ok for moderates or conservatives who by and large like society as it is. But it’s a dead end for anyone who wishes to significantly change how our economy and politics work.