The Death of Pragmatism and the Rise of Principle


Second of two parts.

Are we doomed to suffer at the hands of two political parties with an ever-decreasing difference between them? Three aspects of this question intrigue me. One key conundrum is the issue of pragmatism versus principle. Do we go for what we think will be acceptable to others, or should bolder paths be taken? Second, where we stand on that choice depends on our understanding of how gradual or rapid change can be in American politics. To address this, I review some insights about how systems behave over time. But there are limits: making fixed predictions based on the nature of systems is notorious for leading people down a path of false certainty. Lastly, I argue that our ultimate choices about the bold or pragmatic paths cannot be made solely on the basis of predictions of success; we must act in the face of uncertainty.

I’ve written elsewhere that voting for the lesser of two evils over time has made the Democrats more evil and less powerful. The 2004 elections advanced this pattern. Even if one accepts the argument that Kerry had a narrow victory stolen from him, what should have been a wide victory has fallen victim to a relentless march of the Democrats to the right. This election has been about the Democratic Party putting pragmatism over principle, about going for what poll data suggested was “acceptable” to many Americans, and about losing out to the principles of the far right, who represent a much smaller sector of society. At every turn, from his position on the war to economics to health care, Kerry chose the safe position over the principled one. Principles (the wrong ones unfortunately) prevailed.

“Moral values” were the top issue of just 22% of voters, but by principles I mean something broader. A New York Times/CBS News poll at the end of April revealed something that held steady through to Election Day. 61% believed Kerry says what he thinks people want to hear, while only 29% believed he says what he believes. In contrast, 43% said Bush said what he felt others wanted to hear, while 53% said he says what he believes. Kerry’s choice of pragmatism was fatal.

The gay marriage issue illuminates exactly how the Democratic Party’s choosing to be pragmatic threw the election to Bush. Unfortunately, I called it right in my book, Ralph’s Revolt: The Case for Joining Nader’s Rebellion. I pointed out that by putting initiatives designed to ban same-sex marriage on ballots in swing states, the right could galvanize the 4 million plus fundamentalist voters who stayed home in 2000 because they didn’t feel Bush was one of them. I wrote that, “With a majority already in favor of granting same-sex couples the rights of marriage, Kerry could have decided to educate voters about why legalizing marriage, not civil unions, is the only way to achieve those rights. Such education of an already sympathetic majority might be a comparatively small leap to make.” I suggested that a pro-marriage stance might have helped galvanize those concerned for gay rights, instead of muting their support, as Kerry’s opposition to gay marriage did.

His support of same-sex marriage could have had a much bigger impact: by staking a claim on a position that wasn’t shared by the majority, at least at the outset, Kerry could have come off as principled, not just an echo of what polls told him people believed. There was little political risk in supporting gay marriage; this election, same-sex marriage ranked 12th on a list of voters’ concerns. Voters really wanted a president with principles, many going so far as to vote Bush even when they disagreed with him over some of those principles, such as his stand on social issues or the war.

Bans on same-sex marriage passed throughout all 11 states that had them on the ballot, including the decisive state of Ohio. As one advocate of the bans, Phil Burress, chairman of the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage, told the New York Times, November 3, “his organization, working with 17,000 churches, had distributed 2.5 million inserts for church bulletin on Sunday. ” ‘We’ve been trying to say this all along,” Mr. Burress said earlier Tuesday. ‘The church is going to show up today.’ ” Kerry’s lack of courage, abandonment of principle and inability to challenge those against him was clearly a factor in his defeat.

Some disagree that the initiatives were a factor in Bush’s re-election. But regardless, it is clear what comes next: the right will push their backward principles by putting questions banning gay marriage on the ballots of many more states in 2006, attempting to turn out the fundamentalist Christians.

How will we respond? Will we fight principles with principles, standing up for equal treatment of gays and lesbians under the law? Will we organize to exert political pressure even on issues where our views are not yet in the majority? Or will we sit by on this and many other issues while Democratic candidates present tortured positions based on what they think Americans will accept in a vain attempt to court the religious right, allowing the Republicans to take over everywhere? This is the choice in front of us: an implosion on the politics of deer-in-the-headlights pragmatism or fighting for our principles, most of which are echoed by either a majority, or at least by a constituency that is larger than the far right.

Tepid pragmatism featuring a willingness to make limitless compromises is dead. That was the Kerry platform. Now, according to a post-election poll by the Pew Research Center For the People and the Press published November 11, 2004, most Democrats, by a margin of 52% to 42%, want to stand up to the Republicans rather than accommodate the rightwing agenda.

But if history is any guide, Democrats will redouble their efforts to capture the rightwing vote by moving farther right, at least in terms of civil rights, economic and foreign policy, if not on social policy as well, continuing their trend of many years. After all, that’s where the money is that the party is chasing.

The result could be far worse than anyone is talking about. George for another 4 followed by Arnold for 8. No one knows whether Schwarzenegger, whose status as a naturalized citizen currently prevents a run for president, will be able launch a bid to replace the Bush dynasty. Yet Republican control of the House and Senate makes the passage of legislation needed for his run more likely. And there is the chance that the Supreme Court could rule that, because the 14th amendment affords naturalized citizens all the rights of a native born citizen, immigrants have the right to run. Schwarzenegger may not be the social conservative Bush is, but a two-term presidency by him would give new meaning to the word “terminator.” Whoever the Republican nominee is in 2008, the morphing of today’s progressive slogan into “Anybody But Blank” won’t constitute an election strategy Ours may be a long Republican winter of discontent.

We live under the widespread illusion that this is a two-party system. This is combined with a pervasive if less widely articulated assumption that the system is therefore immutable, that this is the way it has to be. But the history of political parties shows otherwise. When parties fail to answer the issues of their day, they can abruptly disappear. In the 1840s, the Whigs managed to win 2 of the three elections of that decade. But they had no answer to the question, what to do about slavery. We all know the rise of Lincoln, but few understand that accompanying his ascendancy was the oblivion of the Whigs.

Meanwhile, during the next 4 or possibly 12 years, the Democratic Party is unlikely to provide an answer to the fundamental question of our day: what to do about corporate power and the terrorism its empire inflames? Instead, a continued strategy of moving right over the next decade could transform the Democrats from a party that once made history into a party that is history.

Some could argue that pointing to change in the 1850s is just irrelevant to the question of the Democrat’s possible demise. Those were topsy-turvy times for a young nation heading into civil war, where today our system has stabilized. For a fascinating look at how this decline in variation works, we can jump outside the box of politics to look at how it plays out in other systems. Such borrowing of ideas between fields can indeed be illuminating. For example, to cite one beneficial transfer of ideas, Charles Darwin’s core explanation for evolution, a mechanism of natural selection coming out of the struggle of individual organisms to survive and propagate, is entirely taken from Adam Smith’s model of laissez faire economics. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, while noting that Smith’s ideas didn’t actually work too well in his own field of economics, celebrated the impact of Smith on Darwin as an example of how culture aided the understanding of natural history. Perhaps it is time to borrow back from nature to understand our political system more clearly.

Gould wrote extensively about the maturing of two systems, baseball and evolution. He revealed in both a trend away from variation toward confining differences within an increasingly narrow range. In baseball, competition between batter and pitcher caused the extinction of the 0.400 hitter. Though the caliber of batters has improved, so has that of the pitchers, who have hemmed them in. Gould argued that baseball is just as exciting today despite the fact that there is no 0.400 hitting because pitchers and batters have raised the bar by being more evenly matched, and are better than their predecessors. Maybe. Batting close to 0.300 might be cause for celebration in baseball. But the Democrats’ similar record of striking out in 7 of the last 10 presidential elections brings no joy. I find the decline in variation between the parties that mimics the decline in baseball chilling.

Turning to evolution, Gould showed that the Burgess Shale findings revealed wild variation in arthropods millions of years ago that has since shrunk to a group of just four arthropods, mostly insects. In Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, he writes,

“taxonomists have described almost a million species of arthropods, and all fit into four major groups; one quarry in British Columbia, representing the first explosion of multicellular life, reveals more than twenty additional arthropod designs! The history of life is a story of massive removal followed by differentiation within a few surviving stocks, not the conventional tale of steadily increasing excellence, complexity, and diversity.”

Returning to politics, we can see the same dynamics. Where once diverse political parties from the “Know Nothing Party” to the “Free Soil Party” came and went, the extended reign of the two parties, combined with the Democrats aping the Republicans, points to diminished variation as our political system matures. (Here “matures” means “ages,” and should not be confused with “acquires wisdom.”) As with the history of life, the history of American politics, at least on the national electoral level, ain’t the march of excellence either.

But for all that baseball and evolution illuminate the development of politics to date, we run into trouble if we use analogies with games that evolve ever tighter rules and evolutionary forces playing out over hundreds of millions of years to make rigid predictions about politics, a human behavior that involves unforeseeable events. To cite the costs of one such stumble, Marx created his laws of history. He is now unfortunately as famous for being wrong about them, so far anyway, as he was right about his incisive analysis of class.

Borrowing from nature to describe politics can be down right dangerous. The social Darwinists proved this when they argued that “survival of the fittest” should be the principle on which society is based. We would do well to circumscribe the insights gained from other fields.

This over-application of cultural assumptions, usually done unwittingly, has had a deleterious impact on science, a fact worth reviewing in order to grasp the warning about applying lessons from nature too literally. Despite detailing that rare instance of culture informing our understanding of natural history through the ideology of Adam Smith, Gould also wrote passionately about how society’s assumptions about change have wrongly constrained evolutionary theory. Gould pointed out that, in the Soviet Union, evolutionary change was seen as a process similar to a kettle on a stove: nothing appears to happen for a very long time, then incremental changes suddenly boil over. This view matched their cultural assumptions about how political change happens, through revolution. Meanwhile, in the U.S. and Europe, the history of gradual political change may have helped construct the gradualist view of evolution as slow, smooth, and incremental change. Gould and Niles Eldrige challenged these blinders of gradualism in 1970 with their theory of punctuated equilibrium: successful species don’t change very much over most of their existence, but when change happens it is often abrupt.

In assessing political prospects, we must avoid similar blinders. Instances of swift political change are everywhere. The Soviet Union and the Cold War calculus were once fixtures of international relations. Fundamentalist Christians once had little impact on politics. In a remarkably short time period, it’s a whole new ball game both internationally and domestically. Political change can be as rapid as it can be glacial.

But why bother looking to the analysis of systems like baseball and evolution for lessons if we should then shy away from using it to make predictions about politics? I offer more than a romp through some of Gould’s great insights, fun though it always is to spend time contemplating the thoughts of one our most brilliant thinkers and writers. One thing seems clear to me: as long as the goals of the two parties remain fixed, namely chasing corporate money, then it’s quite safe to predict a continued decline in variation. The Republicans will keep moving right to distinguish themselves from the Democrats, who race to catch up. From time to time, the Democrats have and probably will periodically beat the Republicans in serving the interests of the powerful.

If we want the equivalent of the return 0.400 hitting, we have to change the rules. Just as moving the pitcher back 10 paces might do it in baseball, real campaign reform would be essential for any hope of getting the Democrats to go to bat for their constituents. Of the two, I wager we are more likely to see the pitcher’s mound move before the Democrats step off their mound of corporate cash.

I’m not saying it isn’t possible for the Democrats to occasionally nominate candidates that really represent our interests. If Joe DiMaggio can achieve a 56-consecutive-game hitting streak, you can’t say the variation has been reduced to zero. Sadly, in fielding candidates like Kucinich and others over the years, progressive democrats have been reduced to whining, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” Meanwhile, those controlling the party pursue a very different question: how they can get their hands on more of those corporate steroids.

It’s time for a new team.

Bearing in mind that we must not be trapped by our analogies, are we approaching a point of rapid political change on the heels of extended stability of the two parties?
The Democrats really are imploding. Instead of announcing they will stand and fight, “Three Senators Consider Bids for Governor,” The New York Times headlined, November 6. Senators Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, and Charles Schumer of New York are “highly ambitious men,” the Times reports, whose “potential departure from the Hill underscores how impotent Democrats now feel in Washington.” The Democrats are moving from shunning their constituents to abandoning them outright.

This final flight from principles by the Democratic Party might contain a silver lining. Just as in nature, where the history of life is the exploitation of available ecological niches, so it is possible that new parties might rise up to serve the constituents in the political niche that the Democrats are deserting. Some niche! It often comprises the majority of Americans. And while today’s voter turn out is heralded as the highest since 1968, it still didn’t crack 60%. This gives plenty of room to build a platform designed to turn out more voters, our voters.

Things may indeed be changing quickly, possibly for the better as well as for the worse. Consider one seismic shift in our favor whose tremors can already be felt. The New York Times reports that while 52% says the war on terrorism is part of the war in Iraq, 45% “consider the war in Iraq separate from the war on terrorism.” That is not yet a majority in our favor, but I’m guessing we are heading for a majority coupled with a powerful anti-war movement as the occupation drags on. Majority opposition to the Vietnam War took years longer to develop and mobilize. In contrast, most already oppose the war in Iraq.

Today, politics looks locked in a Republican ice age. But Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972 with an astounding 60.7 percent of the popular vote and 520 out of 538 electoral votes didn’t stop the anti-war movement then. Two years later the war and Nixon were history. It’s difficult to see the path to a Bush impeachment given Republican control of the Senate. But today’s much smaller electoral win by Bush could be just as useless for his efforts to continue the war against Iraq as Nixon’s landslide was for conducting his war.

Maybe. But we risk a grave mistake if we act based on guesses about whether social change happens along the lines of punctuated equilibrium, or pin our hopes on the idea that now is the time to act because we have a critical opportunity. We may or may not be at some point of social upheaval. Predicting rapid change is difficult if not impossible. For example, Howard Zinn has pointed out that, as incredible as it may seem looking backward in time, no one really foresaw the upheaval of the 1960s. We do have some new opportunities, but we should do what we think is right, regardless of prospects.

Yet the disarray of the Democrats does present one of these opportunities to reshape the political landscape. Many voted for Bush despite disagreements with him because they knew who he was and where he was going. I dissected Kerry’s record and pronouncements in my book and in articles posted at, and concluded that I couldn’t predict where he was going except that he would likely keep moving right. Maybe he was better than Bush, but that’s not a recipe for winning elections. Now may be a chance to stop worrying about expediency, abandon the Kerry pragmatism and replace it with the politics of principle: fight for what we believe in.

But can we really go against the majority in some instances and stake our politics on principle? I believe it is our only path forward. Returning to the issue of gay marriage as an example, it is not currently acceptable to the majority of heterosexuals. Should that fact dictate our goals? Imagine if the civil rights movement had defined its goals according to what most whites in the South found acceptable in 1960. Would it have challenged the heinous separate but equal doctrine? People stood up for what was right then regardless of what was “acceptable.” On gay marriage, on war, on civil liberties, on so many issues, it’s time to stand up again, to escalate the pressure on society and on politicians.

If the implications for protest and social movements are clear, namely don’t back down, don’t compromise, and don’t let poll data dilute our positions, what about for electoral politics? The Democratic Party is tightly controlled by those who refuse to provide answers to the question of our day. To respond to corporate power in a meaningful way requires participating in an international effort to dismantle our empire and replace it with a system of equality and justice. Some hearty souls inside the party may seek to transform the Democratics into a group to spearhead justice, but success would require intense pressure from social movements and a 3rd party threatening desertion of the electorate. Such a 3rd party could be an ally to those inside the Democratic Party, giving them leverage to move it toward the progressive space it has abandoned. Given the Democratic Party’s history and addiction to corporate cash, I take a jaundiced view of that reform effort. As Marc Wutschke emailed me, “Get out of Dodge. Abandon the Democrats. Come with us. There is a better world possible.”

Do we even need to worry about “splitting the vote” away from the Democrats any more? That was the central concern of the anybody but Bush crew. If we face 12 years of Republican presidents, and that the Democrats are abandoning the legislature because they just don’t want to do the trench work of being an opposition party, then we can toil away and build our organization without worrying about bringing down the Democratic Party; it has already largely been destroyed by the Republicans, or caved in themselves.

The party is so weak that our scorn of the Democrats falls on dying ears. Woodrow Wilson said it best: “Never murder a man who is committing suicide.” With Cam Kerry announcing that his brother John is planning a re-run in 2008, we best leave the party to its suicidal tendencies.

Some have argued that electoral politics aren’t what really matters, that it is who sits in at the lunch counters and exerts the pressure of social movements. I have no quarrel with those who say movements are the more crucial factor. Some say they are even a prerequisite to meaningful electoral politics. Even if this is true, we may well be facing a period of social upheaval, last occurring in the 1960s when we were in an extended war, as increasingly appears to be the case now. Fulfilling that prerequisite of large social movements may be in the works. It’s not too soon to start pondering the electoral strategy that can work hand in hand with those forces.

Regardless of large social movements, the right has shown you can capture the country with electoral politics even if, as in the case of the fundamentalist Christian constituency, you represent less than 30% of the electorate. They did it not by asking what is possible, but by striving relentlessly for their agenda. We have an agenda too, comprised in no small part of positions held by a majority of Americans: universal health care, an end to the war in Iraq, an end to the drug war, campaign reform, progressive taxation, pro-choice, greater regulation of corporate power, higher environmental standards, and so on. We vastly outnumber the right. By staking out our principles, by returning to a politics of protest, by refusing to compromise, by building new electoral challenges, we can unmask the agendas of the right as founded on hatred, on class warfare, on empire, on a view of the world that in many respects is centuries out of date. By articulating just what it is we mean when we say, “we hold these truths to be self evident,” we can call the country to its principles of justice.

Are we at a juncture where the equilibrium of the parties and the relentless shift to the right is about to be punctuated by change? This can’t be foretold by arguing the nature of our political system. It’s a decision in our hands. Isn’t it time to build towards winning?

GREG BATES is the founding publisher at Common Courage Press and author of Ralph’s Revolt: The Case For Joining Nader’s Rebellion. He can be reached at