For many reasons, politics these days is highly emotional. This is a bit odd, given that the deeply emotional splits between ideologies like fascism, communism and capitalism seem a bit vieux chapeaux. After all, do we see fascist or communist armies on the loose? No. Didn’t capitalism, with all of its warts, simply “win”?
Something other than ideology has been stirred up that creates deep divisions. What is it? It is a bit superficial to simply claim that this proves that mankind is more of an emotional than a rational actor. That may be true, but what is driving our emotions? That is a bit muddled.
Walt Whitman had witnessed the horrendous effects of a much worse emotional split — the US civil war. You could argue that the emotions stirred up back then were more muddled than anything we are experiencing now. And the nightmare of it was that there was no way out other than violence. And the emotional split produced incredible and sustained violence. Even after the war ended, it took decades upon decades to regain even a semblance of normalcy in the defeated south. One might argue that we have still not achieved that.
Despite that, Whitman remained an optimist about the American prospects. Here is Richard Rorty on Whitman
Whitman thought that we Americans have the most poetical nature because we are the first thoroughgoing experiment in national self-creation: the first nation-state with nobody but itself to please — not even God. We are the greatest poem because we put ourselves in the place of God: our essence is our existence, and our existence is in the future. Other nations thought of themselves as hymns to the glory of God. We redefine God as our future selves.
We are free to create ourselves as we wish, while others are confined to pre-fab stories of who they are. The natural question is how does one go about creating one’s self in that sense? The answer is not to find an excuse for arguing that we have already achieved perfection. Instead, it is to embrace the hard work, the less glamorous day by day work ,of self-improvement — and building coalitions that support the improvements that are needed. This is an essentially pragmatic rather than ideological commitment.
For a time, that commitment was made by Republican progressives. They lost their initiative after Teddy Roosevelt. Then, after a time, it shifted over to the Democrats under FDR. I would argue with Rorty, that the party affiliation mattered less than the commitment to pragmatic improvement. And the pragmatic left in US politics forged a powerful coalition that got lots of stuff done. It was far from perfect, especially with respect to race, but many things were improved beyond what was thought imaginable at the time.
Rorty argues that things got muddled in the 1960’s, when for various reasons the left moved from pragmatism to cultural war. Should we blame the hypocrisy of public figures? Perhaps. Arrogance? Perhaps. Vietnam? Perhaps. The shift had its justifications, but unexpectedly, it opened the door to an opposing force on the right – the populist conservative. Populism had reared its head before. And I recall that populist figures like George Wallace were initially thought of as fringe – not important in larger historical terms, But Nixon flirted with it, and with Reagan, and after Reagan, conservative populism became a powerful national force. And one could argue that it became more powerful than the narrative of the left. To call someone a “liberal” was to insult. But notice that neither the populist conservative nor the leftist cultural warrior is a pragmatist.
So now we have Donald Trump, who is a populist in the extreme sense. He thrives on the idea that it is right to awaken distrust in the system – to get rid of the rascals in the “deep state”. And the left roars when he serially demonstrates insensitivities to matters of race, gender, national origin and indeed to any interests other than those of folks who are loyal to him. We have found our American strong man and he is driving out reasonable discussion from our national debate. Not only that, Trump affects the various electoral contests that are coming up. Perhaps the most interesting battle field that reflects his impact is Arizona. Very complicated!
Rorty would argue that the way back to sanity is not to push more identity politics and cultural war. It is to find a new pragmatic path. Not just “centrist” politics. But a political narrative that embraces a proud American tradition – The “can do” tradition. More important still — we need to build a coalition of various interest groups around that idea. Not all will be ideologically pure. And there may be serious disputes inside the “big tent”, but the path back to sanity is to gain renewed respect for the art of coalition building — which means embracing progressive pragmatism.
Do you agree? And if you do, who is the leader of this movement?
My own sense is that a number of high profile liberals (like Oprah) will be tempted to step into the limelight. I am not opposed to that. But I hope that these figures will rally BEHIND a credible politician who builds a stronger pragmatic progressive message. Whether that figure is from a minority group or not, that person needs to exhibit strongly OPTIMISTIC characteristics who CONNECTS with people rather than talks down to them. The pedigree from Harvard or Yale is less important than the winning smile, trust building handshake and inclusive message. Who is that? To be honest, I don’t know. But that is the type of leader that I am looking for.