Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pragmatism and the GOP

Pragmatism is the key to success in American politics. We are constantly bombarded with ideology fed to us in platitudes and buzz words meant to elicit images of what are essentially stereotypical portrayals of opposing ideologies. We are inundated with visions of “fiscal cliffs,” “class warfare,” “job creators ”and“ conspiracies” to name but a few.

But when you really study people, when you really listen to them, I think you’ll find that what inevitably “seals the deal” for the electorate is pragmatism. I would go so far as to argue that a major reason some people opt out of participating in the political system is what they perceive as, not an appealing ideology, but a perception that our legislatures are not doing enough to solve our problems. This value is the essence of pragmatism. Most Americans have learned pragmatism the hard way, through life experience at work and at home. Pragmatists control the center of the political spectrum, willing to lean in whatever direction seems to offer the most reasonable, constructive arguments to resolve policy issues. Thus to say that the electorate is “becoming more liberal” is often misleading; you must discern between those responding to ideological messages and those responding to actual policy. Wasn't only a few years ago that people talked about a "revolution" to the right, how the American public had swung decidedly more conservative. The point is that those responding to a preferential policy can just as easily swing the other way, but only if the opposition party can make an equally reasonable case.

This preference for pragmatic rather than ideological solutions has implications for those who abstain from politics. Unless these “unwilling” participants are substantially affected by government policy or regulation they will not connect or reconnect with politics until they are reasonably satisfied that our politicians are committed to a pragmatic course.

The implications for our political parties, and especially for today’s Republican Party, are substantial. Governor Romney’s defeat exposed huge fissures in the Party, as party leaders struggle to determine whether the Party’s future demands greater adherence to “conservative values” or a greater willingness to be more inclusive and more “open minded” to more progressive ideas, ideas invariably more pragmatic in tone and substance. Even since the Tea Party hijacked the primary process and forced greater allegiance to their philosophy, a narrow, somewhat skewed version of conservatism has been able to take hold. These conservatives are fundamentalist by nature, rejecting outright views that conflict with their own. Not only is this anathema to our ability to govern, it is contrary to “liberal science” and the virtues of skepticism and reason.

Conservatism can take on many faces, but it has one backbone. That is the idea that change not be extreme, that it be respectful of culture and custom, respectful of individual freedom and autonomy, and weary of government overreach and premature involvement in issues that may best be solved by the people themselves. From that platform a litany of policies can be envisioned, tailored to meet the needs of people in the cities, the suburbs, the workplace, the market, or any other environment that people live in.

From what I have heard so far in the aftermath of President Obama’s victory has me sanguine that GOP leaders, those more comfortable in the center, are willing to stand their ground against the intractable ideologues of the Tea Party and reactionary right. I have no doubt a “bloodbath” will ensue; my hope is that the majority of Republicans will recognize that their success is not dependent on their imprimatur, and that they should not back down when confronted in the primaries. What will clearly be needed are donors willing to support Republicans in the center. They need to exercise some pragmatism themselves, even if that means sacrificing some personal financial gain for the long term goal of a more vigorous, popular Party.

“We’re on the road to nowhere,” intones the Talking Heads David Lynch. That is the danger facing the Republican Party as it searches for its soul. The GOP needs to find its backbone, and not be seduced by the money, promises, and platitudes of the Far Right.

 I am one of those disaffected “former” Republicans. I didn’t leave the Party so much as the Party left me. It turned its back on reason, “true” rhetoric, and the art of productive, pragmatic negotiation. And so I’ve turned my back on it as well. What currently masquerades as the GOP is nothing more than a cabal of fundamentalists undemocratic at its core. They are suffocating the Republican Party. We desperately need some fresh air.





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