Dump the Dems 3b: Conviction v. Pragmatism


The other thing that Thomas Nephew’s post about his encounter with Eric Alterman throws into sharp relief comes from his commenters. It is the old tension between pragmatic compromise and ideological purity.

Put another way, when does the need to be elected in order to pursue your agenda cross the line into cowardice and/or philosophical emptiness? When does pragmatism turn into win-at-any-cost vapidness? IOW, where exactly is the dividing line between a Paul Wellstone and a Mitt Romney? And is there any room at all for principles? Alterman – and a great many other so-called liberals in the Democratic party – think not.

You know I have a lot of trouble thinking of any principles that I hold more dearly than defeating George Bush in 2000 (2008?) , in the election … [audience laughter] seriously! I think that principles are a form of vanity. Of moral vanity. I think principles are a very useful teaching method for children. I think… but… I have two problems with principles. One is that whatever principle you have I have a competing principle for the same situation. So when you say I’m doing this on principle I can tell you “but there’s another principle that’s at work in the same situation and you’re violating that principle.” So I think principles are what people do instead of making difficult decisions.

(emphasis in the original)

Maybe. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe pragmatism is a way to avoid the certain pain of sticking to difficult principles, principles you believe in but which may make being elected problematic.

I’m not going to discount the nerve, even the courage it takes for a committed believer to compromise his/her beliefs in order to affect a world which will leave him/her out if s/he doesn’t. But otoh, we’re now looking at a situation in the Democratic party where compromise – some say “surrender” – has gone so far that it’s hard to say what the Donkeys stand for any more or even if – like Romney – they can be said to stand for anything at all.

That isn’t a question Alterman or those like him want to discuss. Here’s Paul from Nephew’s comments section:

Thomas, I think you’ve happened upon the tension that occurs between the idealist and the pragmatist.

Alterman is a political opportunist. He’s more concerned with helping his Party obtain more power and influence than achieving goals based on ideals or principles. You may find he and his kind distasteful (as do I on more than a few occasions), but they are a necessary component of the system.

You are an idealist, who believes that the Party should use its power to push through social justice programs for the betterment of the country.

Nell disagrees.

Paul, you’re oversimplifying to the point of condescension about idealists and pragmatists. And you’re also underestimating Thomas’ pragmatism, which his response and many past posts demonstrate.

Exactly. Mr Nephew has been far more willing to compromise than I have been and I’m nothing if not a pragmatist. The difference between the Alterman/Paul school and the Nephew/Nell school is the difference between a group for whom, just as Eric said, defeating George Bush is more important than anything else, and a group that believes it’s just as and perhaps far more important to prosecute accountability in order to prevent a repitition of the Bush/Cheney lawlessness.

But it goes beyond that, even. Defeating Bush is all very well and certainly important for the country. Yet as critical as that victory is, its importance does not allow us to duck the prime question:

And replace him with…what?

Even if we accept the connected propositions that a) defeating Bush is the Prime Directive and b) defeating Bush requires adopting GOP initiatives – which I hasten to say I don’t accept and neither does Thomas or Glenn Greenwald or any number of other lefties who’ve spoken up since the ’06 election who think exactly the opposite – even if you accept that duality, you’re forced to ask what difference it really makes if his replacement is just going to go on pursuing the Bush Agenda or, at a maximum, refuse to undo the damage that has been done so far.

Democrats and liberals have all too plainly been counting on a win in 2008, and have dealt away much of their honor and self-respect in the process of waiting for that blessed event — which may not come. But even if there is a President Obama or a President Clinton next January 10, the value of that victory has already been tarnished by their party’s — and its apologists — craven refusal to hold the most powerful lawbreaker and political criminal in the land to account.

Mr Nephew is convinced – he and Paul have at least this in common – that the Democratic refusal to stop the war, the spying, the torture, and the destruction of the economy that have been hallmarks of the Bush Regime is some sort of campaign strategy that they will jettison once the election is over and the White House is theirs. Far from being too idealistic, Mr Nephew is arguing that the Democrats are chasing the wrong strategy, that unprincipled surrender is a losing strategy.

In point of fact, it’s much more likely that the Democratic refusal to oppiose George Bush has much less to do with winning the election (as Greenwald pointed out months ago, the numbers suggest their willingness to roll over for the Bushies has badly hurt them in opinion polls, thus actually making it harder for them to win the longer they are seen as Bush enablers) than it has with the strong and demonstrable possibility that the Democratic party has been so focused on its need to WIN that it has become poisoned by its own obsession, infected by Republican success with the They’re Right/We’re Wrong Virus. If that’s the case, then they have chosen deflect a base uncomfortable with their new “principles” by using the win-at-any-cost excuse.

And much of the base is buying it.

There’s a legitimate argument here but those of us willing to have it must be just as willing to go all the way to the ultimate questions:

What has the Democratic party become since it was taken over by the neo-liberal New Democrats in the late 80’s?

and

Do they deserve to win? Are we really going to be any better off with a party that has grown used to making excuses for torture, supporting govt spying, prosecuting an illegal war, and abetting the growth of imperial powers in the presidency as if they aren’t worth worrying about?

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5 responses to “Dump the Dems 3b: Conviction v. Pragmatism

  1. Another very interesting post unpacking that discussion with Alterman.

    This doesn’t take up your points directly, but I don’t want it left unsaid that I value Paul’s comments, friendship (online, never met him in person), and point of view even when we disagree. Our current discussion is a little ironic: many’s the time over the past 4 or 5 years when I’ve argued for voting for Dems and Paul — a classic ‘independent’, in the past, at any rate — would be saying +/- what’s the difference. This time around he’s very pro-Obama. We’ve both changed politically over time, or zeroed in on things we care about.

  2. Advocatus diaboli, a valid argumentative technique.

  3. I don’t want it left unsaid that I value Paul’s comments, friendship…

    I never meant to suggest you didn’t. I thought they were classic, pithy, and to the point. That’s why I used them. It seemed to me that the short duologue between Paul and Nell summed up the Democratic split rather neatly. No, I don’t agree with Paul in this instance or with others who feeln that way, but I certainly understand the frustration that came with 15 yrs of losses.

    Actually, that gets into another area we need to talk about: the conservative DLC’s power in the party comes from their being given the credit for engineering two wins for Clinton, using his 2-term presidency to build a corporate donor base that, if it doesn’t equal the GOP’s, at least keeps the Dems in the game.

    That’s a large part of the reason for the twisted nature of the party: the conviction that we have to keep the corps happy to keep the money flowing or we won’t be able to compete. In a comment on the last installment, Laura put her finger right on the nub of the problem: no CFR. No public financing of campaigns. It has turned the Dems into Pubs because they have to get the $$$ from the people who have the $$$, and to do that they have to give the $$$ what it wants in return (like telecom immunity, par example.

  4. And replace him with…what?

    I think the answer to that is that we replace him with a chance to be heard – even if that chance is small. I know program directors of national organizations who are now collecting for two-year plans reasoning that if McCain wins, we’re all dead in the water but if a Dem wins, we’ll have to work very hard to get the policies we want. So it’s between the possibility of a bite of cake and death.

    I’m going to post about this at my place.

  5. Pingback: newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » Why we’re liberals — an impeachment altercation

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