Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Progressive's Paradox
Not much on the blogging front recently, I know. I think part of it is that I don't much feel like writing about politics these days, as it all seems to circle back to one philosophical dilemma I can't seem to figure out.

Though I'm clearly far, far closer to the Democratic mainstream than I am to the Republicans, to the core of my being I resist the idea of being a down-the-line, 100 percent partisan. Sites like Daily Kos increasingly strike me as not much less shrill and reflexive than their counterparts on the right; and like the reactionaries, the loudest and proudest on the left seem to have little notion of the public good that goes beyond "when our side wins." Obviously with some exceptions, there's an intellectual laziness and a willingness to accept received wisdom that I don't think advances the public interest. And the specific issues that most seem to energize "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" aren't the issues I believe to be most important, or even the ones that I think government should concentrate its powers on.

To take a somewhat abstract example, I wonder how the bulk of active Democrats, the sort of people who regularly visit sites like dKos, would respond to this question: if you could snap your fingers and make it so, would you rather pass a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing for all time the legal position decided in Roe v. Wade, or change the country's economic laws and norms such that private sector workers' wages (which have remained largely stagnant since 2000) were guaranteed to rise in some proportion to the profits of their employers (which have skyrocketed)? To me, it's a no-brainer: economic justice is a principle, while Roe is a single Supreme Court ruling (and one of questionable legal reasoning at that). And the goal of distributing prosperity in a more equitable fashion carries demonstrable positive externalities--makes a greater contribution to those overriding national priorities of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--that far outweigh whatever is gained through imposing one view by fiat. And, not less importantly, I don't think you could find a large segment of the population opposed to the notion that when a business venture thrives, its employees should partake in its success.

I'm not saying that reproductive rights aren't worth defending, or that I don't support the outcome of Roe: they are, and I do. But casting a decision in marble is emphatically not the same thing as winning an argument. You can only do that through debate and persuasion. As a progressive--hell, just as a pragmatist thinking about how representative government works in a society committed to pluralism and respectful of diverse opinions--I believe there has to be some process of convincing, not just compelling. It logically follows, then, that nobody has all the answers and no party or faction has a monopoly on vice or virtue; there's no one-size-fits all prescription for governance.

But here's my problem. While I'd like to take issues and elections on a case-by-case basis, and to see policy made from an empirical basis and toward utilitarian ends, the current politically dominant faction in our country is comprehensively partisan and almost totally ideological. The Karl Roves, Grover Norquists, Dick Cheneys, Tom DeLays and Pat Robertsons aren't interested in sober, deliberative, substantive policy debate. They don't believe in responsible governance, and seem to disdain the notion that it's even possible: how else can you appoint so many "Brownies" or staff the Iraq Provisional Authority with former College Republicans and campaign drivers? They aren't at all concerned about the dangers of partisanship: they know exactly what they want and spit on the notion of compromise. (Norquist: "Bipartisanship is date rape.") They are absolutely sure of their own virtue and correctness--a worldview that leads to personal hubris (the Abramoff scandal) and policy disaster (Iraq).

And a large portion of what they do is designed to perpetuate their faction's control on political power. Rove tells the president that "we can run on the Iraq war", flip-flops on the Department of Homeland Security, and draws up vicious attacks on the patriotism, war service and personal integrity of veterans like Max Cleland and John Kerry (and, let's not forget, John McCain). Cheney again and again posits a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. DeLay re-redraws the Texas congressional map, not to foster competitive elections but to maximize the number of solid Republican seats. He and Norquist conceive and implement the K Street Project to more solidly tie the lobbyist community to the Republican Party, ensuring a two-way flow of campaign money and favorable legislation. Robertson and his ilk whip up Christians into a permanent righteous rage by demonizing gays, feminists and secular humanists, and mobilize them to vote a straight Republican ticket.

Now obviously, this Partei Uber Alles worldview doesn't hold with every Republican--though the guys currently in charge certainly seem to want it that way. McCain often has put principle (from fiscal responsibility to the torture issue), and process (campaign finance reform), ahead of party interests. Snowe, Collins and Chafee all seem to vote on issues rather than just follow their leadership (and get viciously attacked for it by rank and file right-wing activists). There are others. I devoutly hope that one day they'll regain the upper hand in their party, restoring the GOP to its one-time vision of fiscal conservatism and healthy distrust of big, intrusive government in all aspects of public life.

But unless and until that happens, how does one resist the current mutant strain of Republicanism? Is the answer to ape its methods and look for our own Roves and Norquists? Do we really want to build a Democratic Noise Machine? If we distrust ideological "solutions" and consider blind partisanship a bad end unto itself, I don't think we can do those things. I'm certain that we can't do them with the total commitment they demand.

So I'm stuck.

Postscript: the site to which I link in the Roe parenthetical above actually has a quotation that sums this up with much greater elegance and brevity than I've managed here:

"The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment."
--Bertrand Russell

Guess that's why he got the big bucks...

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