I will attempt to take pragmatism at its value and look at the political realm going into 2011. As a starting point, Meet the Press this morning had a fair representation of the competing political ideas vying to be heard, from David Brooks to E.J. Dionne and Pat Toomey to a Yale Law Professor, Stephen Carter, plus Katty Kay from BBC. The mostly unspoken themes running throughout the political discussions, which started off David Gregory interviewing Lindsay Graham, were believeability, principles and pragmatism -- no one came out and said political dishonesty is a major problem, although Brooks brought up the fact that very few people trust government to do the right thing, around 19%, in comparison to some years ago when around 80% expected government to do the right thing.
Of course there was the obligatory description of the Tea Party movement as an expression of formless anger, even though Stephen Carter stated that the "experts" are usually wrong about such reactions related to the public's dissatisfaction with Washington DC (I was more impressed with Mr. Carter than any of the others).
What wasn't discussed but kept running through my mind is the current Information Age. Katty Kay did bring up Twitter and Facebook and how these social changes are affecting the political scene as more and more people connect and discuss current events, but what's pertinent about the change is that people are becoming less gullible, and they are demanding authenticity, consistency and honesty.
It's becoming more difficult to manufacture images, market an idea or individual, and fool the public. It's the difference between a good movie and a bad movie. In a good movie, the director, producer, writers and actors can make the unbelieveable believeable if consistency is maintained through the film -- the actors, the plot, the content all have to mesh to create believeable images. When politics borrowed image-making from Hollywood, they were successful as long as the media was restricted to a few media sources who helped create and maintain the images, but with the advent of the Information Age and the last few years of a rising alternative media and more public involvement in politics, Washington DC has put out one bad movie after another -- plus, we're creating better movie critics.
Let's look at the movie called Pragmatism which has been given great reviews from the likes of David Brooks and, to a certain extent, Graham, Dionne, Kay and all present on Meet the Press with perhaps the exception of Toomey who is more a principles guy.
Here is what Merriam Webster has on pragmatism:
an American movement in philosophy founded by C. S. Peirce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief
Let's take this at face value. Over and over we see pragmatists in the political realm call for pragmatic solutions and an end to the ideologically rigid insistence on principles. Pragmatists say it's more important to do what works rather than what conceptually accords with a predetermined philosophy. I can't argue with this, except to say that principles usually become principles because they've been tested in the real world and have proven that they work. But let's say that what pragmatists really mean is that too many people have developed an ideology based on a set of principles and try to apply these principles when the facts of the problems to be resolved are different than the prior problems which the principles resolved, that not all the principles work in all circumstances in a complex, changing reality which requires creative solutions at times. If this pragmatic approach is authentic, then there's no problem -- we discover new ways of solving complex problems -- but are the pragmatists being honest, or are they trying to break down one ideology to apply solutions which fit their ideology or to leave government operations loose enough to apply "solutions" which serve the establishment of power and control?
The argment for the stimulus was that we needed to take pragmatic actions to deal with an economic crisis -- those who opposed the stimulus on principles, say Austrian economists vs Keynesian economists, were called ideologues too caught up in their principles to see the need for pragmatic actions that work in such a reality as we now face. Because of transparency we see that the stimulus had major problems -- it didn't prevent unemployment from rising to almost 10% -- it favored unions and Democrat cronies -- it was filled with pork -- it put bandaids on state financial problems --and, mainly, it didn't stimulate the economy. Die-hard proponents of the stimulus say that it prevented a catastrophe and that the economy would be much worse off without it. Most reasonable economists (from my perspective, of course), even some on the left who would have preferred the stimulus go toward infrastructure, have said the stimulus was mostly wasteful. The pertinent question is was the stimulus an authentic, pragmatic solution? I think not.
Republicans rebelled, and they tried to create the image of a conservative, even partly libertarian, alternative -- cut spending -- free up the market -- get government under control and limit its power. Have the Republicans been authenic, consistent, honest? I say no. Even though a large part of the new media is friendly to the Right, still, the hypocrisy of Republicans is constantly exposed. There's no united Republican opposition to waste and out-of-control spending in the military -- there's no hard questioning regarding the effectiveness and wisdom of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- there's no concerted effort to end corporate welfare -- there are no serious efforts to totally reform entitlements like SS and Medicare. A limited government and a free market are apparently far too radical for Republicans, and Trent Lott even said that the new Tea Party candidates who won elections should be co-opted by the Republican establishment. This is a bad movie, so far.
And what about the No Labels, Moderate crowd calling for pragmatic solutions reached by compromise and working together to get things done in government? David Brooks on Meet the Press called for "balance" -- moderates love that word. But what would authentic balance look like today? Regardless of the new "moderate" point on the line stretching from right to left, anyone who goes back in time and traces the changes up to the present will see that government intervention in the economy has shifted left, away from a free market, and brought the moderate position left. In order to achieve an authentic, moderate position of balance, we would need to move much closer to a free market than the moderates are proposing -- the moderates are not calling for a strong shift to a free market, just a moderation of the trend toward the left, a slower, more reasonable movement to the left. In light of all the unintended consequences of government intervention going back to the New Deal, one has to wonder why the moderates think the pragmatic way to solving our problems is to make it easier for government to get things done.
E.J. Dionne said the far left is disappointed in Obama, and Mr. Carter said that Obama is not lookng at the reality of the Afghanistan War. Even the far left, who are unafraid of principles, are seeing that the political realm, the Democrat Party, is not authentic and consistent. The left was promised much more than they received from Obama and company. I believe that Obama believes in what he promised and is soulfully connected to the left, but he has to be dishonest to deal with all the political pressures. The movie made by the Obama production company might be the last one that even partially succeeds -- the promotion of he movie was successful because people wanted to believe it was an award winner -- but, alas, it's just another bad movie.
In the Information Age, the political realm and our system of government are in a serious quandary -- the system is predicated on image-making, but it's no longer putting out good movies -- the media is not participating fully in the image creation, and there's too much transparency behind the scenes, and there are too many people looking for believeability, and the results aren't holding up. Plus people are tired of image-making -- they want to separate Washington DC and Hollywood.
So, this brings us to the people -- have they been authentic? Has the left been realistic in its demands on government -- are they really operating from a position of compassion and social change or are they simply demanding that government solve all their problems and support them in ways we can't afford? Is the Right really serious when they demand their representatives cut spending and limit government power? Again, what about military spending, the wars, the national security State, SS, Medicare, unemployment benefits, farm subsidies, the war on drugs and all the other government spending and interventions they've historically supported just as the left have supported their interventions and spending? I realize that defense is a legitimate part of government responsibility, but no one can legitimately deny that there's incredible waste in the defense budget and that the military/industrial complex has grown way out of proportion to what we need for safety -- and after ten years in Afghanistan, can anyone really justify risking our soldiers' lives any longer with no solution in sight?
If we really want to be pragmatic, let's not use that word as an excuse to do what our side wants to do to expand the power of the State, let's be pragmatic with principles in mind to remind us what's really likely to work and what's not.