Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why the Left Lacks Fortitude I: Directionless Pragmatism

Before we can figure out how to restore the Left’s political fortitude, it is necessary to discuss why it is lacking. The sources of the problem are many, but the main two, I think, are what I will call “directionless” pragmatism and a conflict-averse culture. I’ll address the first here and the second in a later post.
By “directionless” pragmatism I mean pragmatism unguided by final principles, and I mean “directionless” in a pejorative way. Many people, especially among the DC centrist- and center-left elite, are committed to the idea that pragmatism is a good thing, and that it means that political leaders have to stay within the limits of what is “politically possible” and/or always calculate where the “political middle” is and craft one’s political positions to please it. Do I think acting pragmatically is entirely wrong-headed? I certainly don’t reject being practical, but I think that, to be effective, pragmatism has to be guided by deeper principles that limit and constrain what practical actions are permissible. Pragmatism must be steered by a vision: you can’t get things done without being practical, but you also can’t get things done without a principled direction -- if you try you end up spinning your wheels or going in circles.  You need a destination to march towards.  In addition to direction, commitment to a vision generates strength, steadiness, motivation, and determination, all of which are needed to break the constraints on public debate imposed by the Right. The politicians, pollsters, and pundits on our side long ago elevated pragmatism over principle in a vain quest to pander to perceived center, and in so doing lost their direction and political strength. 

Pragmatism is about choosing the most effective means to achieving your ends, but those ends themselves have to come from a deeper set of principles or you get lost. Those final ends and values have to be the guidepost or landmark on the horizon that is kept in sight throughout the journey, even if practicality is sometimes needed as circumstances change to go around obstacles or adjust the pace. In contrast, pragmatism unguided by final principles leads people hither and yon, taking the apparently easy path that leads to nowhere, and in the end never arriving at their destination -- just as the Left never sees its political program actually enacted.  Lost travelers are easily misled by roadside shysters and waylaid by bandits -- just as many sincere progressives are misled by pragmatic centrists, or ambushed in public debate by rabid right-wingers. Such lost travelers, after wandering too long in the political wilderness, also eventually lose their confidence, fall into despair, and just give up. This is precisely the situation that the Left has been mired in: lost, directionless, confused, and desperate. 
Directionless pragmatism leads people to compromise when they should take a stand. This is a bad problem among the DC elite and activists, and particularly among the well-meaning, but ultimately failed, centrists who gave us the DLC, triangulation, and the current habit of political capitulation, and who have ultimately been unable to stand against the conservative assault on our shared public sphere. It can also be found among many political scientists across the country, who teach it to their students and thus keep perpetuating it. Pragmatism causes them to limit the horizon of their choices to what is “politically possible,” not understanding that what is possible itself can be changed, especially in the mid- to long-run, by influencing the media narrative, changing public opinion, and pressuring lawmakers. DC Democrats limit and adapt their strategy to the prevailing electoral environment at any given time, and they don’t understand that they have influence over that environment through public argument and good governance. Continuing to do what is “politically possible” means they are trapped within the environment that conservatives set, and which channels the Left into docilely following conservative principles and policies, regardless of the damage done. 
As has oft been noted by other commentators, the end result of this is that as conservatives press their arguments with the courage of their convictions, centrist liberals use political calculus unguided by principle to side-step as rapidly as possible to the perceived middle, never understanding that because the Right is the only side doing the pulling that the range of public debate constantly shifts to their side. Directionless pragmatism must still move in a specific direction, and since political calculus is indifferent to that direction, the Right has been happy to provide it for thirty years, and counting. This dynamic can only be stopped by pulling on our side -- and that means reaffirming our principles, keeping them constantly in sight, and ignoring the temptations of directionless pragmatism.


  1. A masterful description of American politics today. I wonder, however, as an inveterate cynic of human nature - as well as both a close personal friend of the blogger and a political scientist who perpetuates the study of political calculus as the art of the possible - if the strength of the Right's message stems more from the ease with which its self-interested, scapegoating, cognitive-dissonant invective is swallowed by the average citizen, than from the absence of a Leftist "counter-pull." If this is the result of human nature, how can we change that? If not, how do we make altruism commomplace, if not for the linkage of the greater good to individual gain?

  2. Interesting points, Dennis. Too often an easy dichotomy is made between self-interest and altruism, when human motivations are more multiple and complex. Selfishness is one of them, as is generosity, but so are things like patriotism, family loyalty, parental love, friendship, civic spirit, and so many more I couldn't come up with a comprehensive list. They are all part of human nature, which makes me very uncynical: a Hobbesian view of human nature puts just one of our capabilities first, and one of our negative ones, and neglects the rest. Yet we all have felt a connection to something larger than ourselves, whether it be an art or science or sport, or family or charity or country, or larger principle.

    The question seems to be, how do we strengthen peolpe's identification with each other, with their communities, with their societies, and with humanity at large? Verba, Shlozman, and Brady's research in "Voice and Equality" showed that people tend to believe the last political argument that they heard - with the implication that if they hear only one side making arguments, that's what they'll believe. And I'm convinced it is the lack of a Left counter-pull: the Democrats stopped making principled moral arguments long ago, while the Right built a whole cable TV/talk radio/think tank behemoth to make theirs. In my experience, when a lousy argument is being made, it usually only takes a strategic interjection to get people to at least question it: often all you have to do is speak up.