Saturday, June 23, 2012

Garry Wills on the Quest for Political Purity

Garry Wills in NYRB reacts to a post by Harvard law prof Robert Unger saying the Obama must be defeated in order to advance the "progressive agenda". I know that I tweeted this as a "must read", but I must needs say more.

First, this bone-headed idea that we must make things bad enough to bring about "real change" or whatever term of adulation you prefer, is a recipe for suffering and disaster. Radical political movements of both the Right and Left love such pure thinking. It's poison! We may not like our choices, but choosing the worse in order to (hope) get the better later is nuts. It just doesn't work that way, not at least often enough to place bets. A failed Mitt Romney presidency is as likely to take the country to the right as it is the left, and perhaps more so. And the left--well, it's track record, when it comes to radical reform, is poor. Incremental change is often frustrating and difficult to stomach, but radical change is most often for the worse.

Wills wrote an excellent piece in Harpers (alas, gated) about politics in 1976 entitled "Feminists & Other Useful Fanatics" that addresses these same issues. Wills has admiration of the purists,  the 'saints", like feminists, Martin Luther King, Jr.,  and others, but he also understand the role of politicians. The two roles are different, and we really shouldn't try to mix the two very closely or very often. The purity of the saint won't work for the politician, and the compromise inherent in politics sullies the saint (or prophet, as I believe Wills refers to them as well.)

I go with the realists, the incrementalists, the politicians.
(For another great statement of the perspective, go read Max Weber's "Politics as a Vocation", especially the part about the two ethics.)

Krugman & Wells on Obama's Economic Team & Plan

This NYRB article by Krugman & Wells provides some excellent insights (via the books reviewed) about the workings of the Obama administration viz. the economic crisis, and it provides some excellent points about the current status of American politics. Among the take-away points:
1. Obama went with "insiders", like Geittner & Summers, for his economic team. Understandable in the sense of wanting to have experienced hands at the wheel, but Geitner especially seems to have been way too concerned Wall Street. Thus, Wall Street got a pass on its reckless behavior and the American public resented the fact.
2. Obama was (I my! How I hope I've used the correct tense!) way too concerned with appearing "bipartisan" and not "parochial". Accordingly, he compromised way to much and way too quickly. (Drew Westonn, whom I've cited in earlier blog posts, has dissected this very well. Here again. )
3. Make no mistake about it: the current dysfunction in the American political system lies overwhelmingly with the contemporary Republican Party. Not the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, or even (oh, dear!) Nixon. So sad, as I've addressed in earlier posts as well.

The take away: our economic policy has been inadequate the the challenges that we face (not to mention that we're under a cloud because of European dysfunction), but our situation is even more dire because of an increasingly dysfunctional political system dominated by a wacky Republican Party.