Here comes a really long one. I was inspired by the article by Rik Perlman that one of you cited. (If anyone feels like letting Perlman know....)
Idealism vs. Pragmatism: The false dichotomy that has ruined both left and right
In tracing the long journey of neoconservative transformation, from the political wilderness of 1964 to controlling all the nation’s levers of power, journalist Rick Perlstein, author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, describes a tense, decades-long process that gyrated between two alluring attractor states -- idealism and pragmatism - each of them offering both a bright and a dark side.
“Richard Nixon once instructed a new staffer, Richard Whalen, "Flexibility is the first principle of politics." The conservative movement has understood itself to be the people who unflaggingly answered back to Nixon: "Principle rises above politics." That's a quote from Alf Regnery, in a profile of him this fall in the Washington Post.”
Or, as expressed by conservative philosopher Russell Kirk, conservatism is anchored in: "belief in a transcendent moral order." In the certainty of core beliefs that are absolute and unchanging.
Of course, statements like this are meant to sound admirable, and especially to contrast against Nixon’s famed “realpolitik” flexibility, which was so protean and redefinable that it could range from the very worst dirty tricks all the way up to acts of geopolitical genius -- e.g. reaching out to China -- that redefined the world power balance at a single stroke. (Indeed, many on the right have not forgiven, even though the left conveniently forgets, that Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed a national Health Care bill more far-reaching than Hillary Clinton’s.)
Of course, the irony is greatest when you contemplate how similar this all seems, to quandaries faced by the left, where idealists also claim to base their indignant, uncompromising stand upon a bedrock of fundamental moral principles, while expressing contempt for compromisers, or those who would trade essential truth for practical power.
At both extremes -- the dogmatically principled left and the creed-grounded right -- you never hear anyone mention the most obvious and blatant lesson of human nature -- and human history. That we are relentless and marvelously creative self-deluders. And the most attractive, most voluptuous of our delusions are those incantations that just happen to make “our side” seem saintly and right.
(The truest and deepest cleft in our society must be between those who notice -- and smell something’s too convenient, too suspiciously tidy -- when we see only evidence that makes us feel superior... versus those who never catch or notice this irony. That the universe seems always to confirm just what we want it to. People on one side of this psychological divide are able to say the words that underlie all of science and democracy, as well as true-creativity. The words: I might be wrong. People on the other side -- even very learned and intelligent people -- could read this paragraph a hundred times, without ever truly grasping what it means.)
It may seem that I am bad-mouthing idealism. And yet, what else can one call the passion that a decent person calls upon, whenever we rise up, risking our lives to defend the finest notions -- those of tolerance, freedom, beauty and love? Idealism is as necessary as air. When people turn their backs on principle, you get the very worst side of pragmatism... a cynical pursuit of short-term gain at the expense of others. Contempt and amoral rationalization. Mere manipulative cleverness that has no guiding or trustworthy theme. Or, the thing that even conservatives of his day, like Barry Goldwater, despised most about Richard Nixon.
So, what am I saying? Are both idealism and pragmatism doomed to be scuzzy? One, a tendency toward druglike sanctimony and delusion? The other, a cesspit for the power-hungry?
Fortunately, there are more than enough counter-examples to show that this is not a bipolar situation at all. A better metaphor would portray four attractor states. There are pragmatists who understand a need for solid values. There are idealists grasp the concept of humility.
It is possible, in both cases, to say aloud those wise words from a Dirty Harry move... ”A man’s got to know his limitations.”
Or, as Barry Goldwater put it in Conscience of a Conservative: "we entrust the conduct of our affairs to men who understand that their first duty as public officials is to divest themselves of the power they have been given." This concept goes back to the original American Cincinnatus, George Washington, whose example once had force and redolence in our lives. Before he faded into a cartoon figure with wooden teeth.
Indeed, the entire Enlightenment Experiment has been based upon the notion of taking the very best parts of both idealism and pragmatism and applying them to a steady project of improving society, improving ourselves. An idealism that assertively protects both human rights and individual opportunity clearly feeds into the practical fecundity of both market competition and social cooperation, making each of these tools more effective. The wealth and knowledge thus generated then nurtures further idealistic efforts to expand rights and opportunities.
This virtuous cycle, featuring mutual support between idealistic missions and pragmatic projects, once was the very thing that the word “liberal” originally stood for. And it has been outstandingly successful.
Alas, the problem with the Enlightenment Experiment is that these “mature” approaches to idealism and pragmatism do not nourish our older, darker natures. Look at 99% of past human cultures. Read history. You will see elites of both church and state performing two essential rites.
Glorifying and sanctifying their own worldview... and taking every practical measure to ensure a monopoly of power.
In other words, history shows that idealism and pragmatism have never been opposites or enemies! Instead, they served as partners for oppression, throughout our long, pre enlightenment past. From Plato to Machiavelli to Hegel, the rationalizations offered by bright “idealists” ultimately boiled down to “give power to my favored elites.” These habits run deep through our past; they cling tenaciously and they will die hard.
Hence -- bearing all of this in mind -- is it any wonder how the long struggle over the heart of conservatism finally turned out? In their naive oscillation between “purist” idealism and sell-out pragmatism, the final answer was a rationalized compromise that offered a way to have both.
At the University of Chicago, Professor Leo Strauss tutored future leaders of neoconservatism in platonic techniques for rationalizing pure and self-serving monopolies of power, creating a marvelously self-satisfying notion that lying is moral, patriotic and good -- so long as it is done by princely young philosopher kings. Turning Barry Goldwater’s wrenching call for self-restraint upon its head, the Straussians turned into a prescription to “take power, hold it tenaciously, and call it good.”
In replicating the behavior and rationalizations of every past kingdom, these transformed neoconservative thinkers saw no irony. Nor, while preaching that everybody should read Thucydides, do any of them look in the mirror and see a fellow by the name of Alcibiades.
Rik Perlstein, who knows nearly all of the modern conservative thinkers and philosophers, studied their behavior during that long journey from political exile to triumphant power. He offers a thesis that today’s Republicans “are less the party of Goldwater, and more the party of Watergate.”
Well, Perlman knows this topic much better than I do. Nevertheless, and with all due respect, let me suggest that the situation can be viewed a bit differently. Not as a swing between idealism and pragmatism. But rather as a choosing of the dark side of both.
Goldwater and Nixon are both viewed as martyrs by neoconservatism. Their defeats (in 64 and 73) fuel “never-again” zeal. But in a strange twist, both men are revered for their worst traits, their better parts abandoned. The Barry Goldwater who was a self-doubting idealist, whose solid values include a skeptical, Lockean awareness of human self-deception, is no longer part of the discussion. Nor is Richard Nixon perceived as the pragmatic negotiator, the gamesman who could offer a health care package and start the EPA, just before rocking Soviet momentum off course by rushing off to China. What remains is Goldwater the simplistic dogmatist, and the Nixon who would do anything for power.
(Indeed, some in Arizona recall how the elderly Goldwater proclaimed a fraternal liking of both Clintons and disdain for the recent crop of amoral, secretive neocons. They joke that the state might supply all its power from the spinning in Goldwater’s grave.)
Does this indictment of the right, for choosing the “dark side,”make the far left any better?
Not much. Certainly, they carry the same human impulses, inherited from the same oppressive, rationalizing ancestors. The crucial ability to say “I might be wrong” is every bit as much absent from dogmatic ideologues on that side, as it is on the right.
No, the difference between today’s far-left and far-right is very simple. Role models for the right pervade all of history. Alliances of practical kings and idealistic clergy are seen everywhere in the human past, and their pattern -- described by Machiavelli -- is engraved in human nature.
The left, on the other hand, envisions itself detached from history, and even from human nature. Their idealism appears to be about the New Man (as Lenin called him). They want power, desperately, but feel uncomfortable with the gritty methods that may be necessary to achieve it. They despise the approach of Locke and Franklin as too-American, too-modernist, too much the work of gritty engineers, artisans and bourgeois shopkeepers. And yet, they cannot bring themselves to organize for all out, streetfighting demagoguery, the way the neocons have tactically fomented “culture war,” because that might mean talking to the people. The people. Ew.
Liberals -- true liberals -- have got to face facts. They will not find anything useful or sensible on the left. Not even political streetfighters who are worth a damn. Nor will it do any good to try and copy the methodologies that brought the rightwing back from exile, to wield almost-ultimate power. They are scripted by feudal aristocracy and copying their techniques will do liberals no good at all.
There really is only one place for liberals... and for Barry Goldwater conservatives... to go.
Back to Locke and Franklin. To Truman and Ike. To the new style of cooperation between idealism and pragmatism. The idealism of openness and the pragmatism of accountability. The idealism of opportunity and the pragmatism of ambitious projects. The idealism of cooperation and the pragmatism of competitive markets. The bright and honest style of combining both human traits, though -- as the neocons have proved -- always the harder style to undertake.
Abandoning the nonsense of "left-vs-right," we must wage this fight as a battle between past and future. Between our fallible human natures and all the things we want ourselves to become.