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Pragmatic Spinelessness

American soldiers after Normandy Landing

We’ve been treated to a demonstration of the nature of political discourse in this country lately. First the Republicans took the stage with their poo-flinging efforts to gin up a scandal out of normal government activity, accompanied by a braying of Fox News Glorious Chryons and Star Wars music. Then Glenn Greenwald broke the details of a spy program that every FDL reader knew was out there, leading to more of the same blather and lying from the likes of James Sensenbrenner, as Marcy Wheeler explains in the Guardian. From the Democrats, we get a bunch of responses on each of these issues, some weak and some reasonable, but absolutely nothing positive, nothing that will advance the interests of anyone but the rich. Frank Zappa explained the Republicans in a 1991 interview with Spin Magazine:

… the Democrats stand for nothing except “I wish I was a Republican” and the Republicans stand for raw, unbridled evil and greed and ignorance smothered in balloons and ribbons.

Here’s a sampling of proof about the ignorance part from Billmon via Twitter:

1. billmon ?@billmon1 Jun
GOP candidate for VA Lt. Gov says yoga and transcendental medidation can clear way for Satan to possess souls: 5/7
2. billmon ?@billmon1 Jun
Former GOP Sec Defense says he “doesn’t know” if POTUS who ordered raid on Bin Ladin has “changed sides” in GWOT 4/7
3. billmon ?@billmon1 Jun
Fox News “Medical A Team” psychologist says Obama is waging secret mind war against the American people: 3/7
4. billmon ?@billmon1 Jun
Host of popular RW/libertarian radio show says fed gov may have a tornado weapon, might have used against OK: 2/7

I don’t expect anything reasonable from the Republicans. The more interesting question is why the Democrats are such a bunch of spineless weenies. I think it’s because as a group they think of themselves as pragmatists, not ideologues. They define themselves in opposition to the Republicans, not as holding a different ideology from the Republicans, but as being realists, operating in an environment they share with others and do not control, and trying to get something done. They think they should reason with the Republicans and find bipartisan common ground, led, of course, by President Obama. There is no statute, program or principle they won’t treat as a bargaining chip.

In the 1930s, the Democratic Party was largely driven by shared economic ideology: shocked awareness of the horrors that rampant capitalism had inflicted on the country and belief in the power of government to control the excesses of the feral rich. In the 1960s, the Democrats were driven at least in part by a sense of the injustice towards African-Americans and poor people in US society, including economic injustice. The fact that at both times there were other beliefs among the Democrats that caused misery for millions can’t detract from the good they did. Today’s Democrats don’t share this economic ideology or any other, which makes it perfectly possible for them to throw out the gains made by their forebears.

The strongest proof of my pragmatism thesis is the Sequester, that monstrous agreement by the President and the Senate, both nominally under Democratic control, that cut social programs and a host of other important government functions. Their claims that they want to help the middle class, and that they believe in the value of government, both were tossed aside because to these Democrats, the only important thing is the deal. The content of the deal is irrelevant. The important thing is to be pragmatic in dealing with Frank Zappa’s Republicans.

Pragmatism is the only philosophy invented here in the United States. Its history begins shortly after the Civil War, with the meetings of the Metaphysical Club, a group including Charles S. Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry James. There is a delightful account of this in Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. The most important practitioner of these ideas was John Dewey, about whom I have written several posts. Dewey’s work was carried forward by Richard Rorty, among others.

One fascinating aspect of pragmatism is that it rejects the idea of universal truths that exist somehow apart from the real world inhabited by humans. For centuries philosophers tried to reason their way to timeless truths that apply to all of us all the time. The search for timeless truths forms the basis of religions. Many people believe that there are timeless truths, revealed by the founder of their group, the Buddha, the Christ, Mohammed, Mary Baker Eddy. These truths hold for all times and in all situations. Followers are required to march behind them in perfect harmony.

That’s silly, say the pragmatists. There is only this world, and only in this world can we try to move forward. There are no final truths. In the hard sciences, we approach those truths, by tiny accumulations of data that suddenly cascade into some other formulation. In the area of human morality, we don’t even move that smoothly. Instead, we try and fail and try to learn from failure. Pragmatism isn’t something just for liberals or leftists. It is an approach to the universe that can be used by anyone. Just look at this post by Josh Barro, a Republican.

People who call themselves pragmatists need to tell us one more thing: This is what I will fight for. Democrats? We’re waiting.

Photo: H/T Michael Beschloss via twitter

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