Ideas And Politics: Frenemies For Life

Commentary

In earthly politics, lofty ideas are tricky.

When given too much weight, politics becomes ideological: pedantic, rigid and blinkered. When given too little weight, politics becomes malnourished: uninspired, rudderless and corruptible.

Ideas, for our purposes, are different from policies, positions and, importantly, ideals. They are theories and schools of thought, usually with academic roots, bands of boosters and claims of universality: Supply-side economics, nation-building and neoconservatism come to mind.

There is a great tradition of disliking ideas in the history of American civic life, as famously noted in Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1964. Americans have a well-founded sense in the story of our politics. Our very best and enduring ideas involve the process and structure of our system, not policies, programs and ideologies: the Constitution system, the balance of power, checks and balances, and federalism. Such a wise system, based on such durable and clear grand ideas, needs to be fed and stocked with pragmatism and practical knowledge, not more ideas, philosophy, dogma and erudition: Eisenhower, not Stevenson.

This thinking spread the intellectuals of the democratic (little d) and Liberal (capital L) West after the totalitarian atrocities of the 20th century, Nazism and Stalinism. The leading British political thinkers of the second half of the century, Michael Oakeshott and Isaiah Berlin, both tied the totalitarian impulse to the grandiosity of too-big ideas, perverted rationalism and philosophic self-certainty.

The most influential American political philosophers in that period — John Rawls, Robert Nozick and Ronald Dworkin — were more entranced by ambitious, hyperlogical philosophic systems, but scrubbed their work of the soaring flourishes and metaphysical audacity that make the Continental greats like Rousseau, Nietzsche and Marx so fetching for ill-fed students and their professors. They stuck with the pinched language of analytic philosophy, sending few students into the streets.

Since Edmund Burke's objections to the bloodier aspects of the French Revolution, it has been conservatives who are most suspicious of ideas in politics. They are particularly wary of the idea that rationalism and logic can discover scientifically the correct ideas for organizing society, that "they" know better what is good for "you" than you do.

In the scruff and stumble of American partisan electoral politics, idea-heavy figures have had a mixed legacy in the post-war period. The most explicitly intellectual or ideological politicians who had an impact on the national scene, whatever their contributions, never made it to the presidency or sustained power in Congress: Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater, Gary Hart, Newt Gingrich and Al Gore, to name just a few. Jimmy Carter dipped into academia and focused a major presidential address on the idea of Christopher Lasch's book The Culture of Narcissism that America suffered from a "crisis of confidence." Symbolically at least, this was the beginning of the end for Carter. (P.S. I agree with Lasch.)

Dwight Eisenhower, the archetypal modern pragmatist, had perhaps the most successful presidential reign of that period. His only competitor was Ronald Reagan, who was ideological, if not intellectual, and strongly wedded to particular theories of economics, social policy and geopolitics.

I would argue that Bill Clinton was a pragmatist, not an ideas man. He mostly kept American soldiers safe, deficits small and unemployment low; apart from his scandals, it was a successful presidency, though not one likely to be long and precisely remembered.

By contrast, George W. Bush was ideological in the way Reagan was, though Reagan had more sense. Bush was susceptible to the theoretical charms of the neoconservatives on foreign policy, of Dick Cheney and his crusade to reassemble the imperial presidency, and of various economic cults.

So oddly enough, in recent times it seems that Republican conservatives have been far more eggheaded and theoretical than Democratic liberals. That's partly why Republican politics can be so much fun; their arguments are so vicious. The idea wars in the party now between the free-market purists and the Paulsonistas, the neocon nation-builders and the neo-isolationists, the deficit hawks and doves, and the environmental believers and nonbelievers are deliciously pompous and nasty.

Candidate Barack Obama was something of a puzzle on these scales.

Many voters and commentators responded to him as if he were a candidate of great, big ideas — a transformational thinker, a visionary. But from what I can tell, Obama's policies are very standard-issue, early 21st century Democratic; they add up to a platform, perhaps, but not a philosophy. Is "change" a big idea? Is a "new politics" that is less partisan?

Though obviously not anti-intellectual, by Obama's own account he is a pragmatist, not strongly bound to any "isms." It's hard to see how a booster of bipartisan new politics could pick Rahm Emanuel to be chief of staff and be anything but a hard-core pragmatist.

"What I don't want to do is get bottled up in a lot of ideology and is this conservative or liberal. My interest is finding something that works," Obama told Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes, when discussing the economy. "And whether it's coming from FDR or it's coming from Ronald Reagan, if the idea is right for the times then we're going to apply it. And things that don't work we're going to get rid of."

Hard to argue with that. It's hardly Hegel. But it still seems refreshing.

Grand ideas, tidy organizing principles, the promise of philosophic clarity and Kennedy-esque rhetoric are one set of tools successful leaders use. But pragmatists can inspire, too, and lead. Like Franklin Roosevelt and, I think, John Kennedy. One tool those two obviously shared with Obama is a command of their words.

Bill Clinton had that skill as well. But Clinton lacked something that candidate Obama had: the capacity to carry and reflect peoples' high hopes and aspirations almost like a Rorschach. At one point, I thought that was a criticism of Obama. Now I don't. The test, of course, comes from governing, not campaigning.

Similarly, during the campaign, I thought Obama's lack of ideas was troubling. That was probably wrong, too; I should have better remembered my Oakeshott and Berlin.

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