There’s a certain hankering in American political culture for governing stripped of arguments and ideology, and dedicated to just getting things done. Of course, that overlooks important questions about what should get done and how it should be accomplished.
The current issue of Esquire contains what initially comes off as a journalistic blow-job titled, “Michael Bloomberg Will Save Us From Ourselves If Only We Let Him.” The piece starts off in the tone of just the latest eruption of can’t-we-just-get-along pining for a world in which people just let the government get on with the business of getting into our business without arguing over the propriety of the micro-controlling fever-dreams of the the sort of technocratic dominants who make the compulsively submissive journalists at national publications cream themselves.
But John H. Richardson’s Esquire piece is much more interesting, and much more revelatory, than that. In an article that continually portrays a politician who has absolute faith in his own rectitude, Richardson hints not just at the core of Bloomberg, but at the problem of non-ideological politics itself: “Bloomberg is the ultimate independent, the calm modern technocrat rooted in metrics and cleansed of ideology, come to drain the swamps of government with his amazing modern business-management techniques … unless he’s actually just an old-fashioned autocrat looking down on us from above and tinkering with our lives like a science experiment, stripping our noisy polis of all its native poetry.”
As Richardson suggests, the problem with pragmatism, technocracy and post-partisanship is that they breeze right by the important truth that all of our messy political arguments are rooted in real debates. These debates aren’t (or shouldn’t be) just cheerleading for Team Red or Team Blue — they’re about the wisdom and propriety of government programs that can massively affect the lives of millions of people. Stripped of fripperies, ideology is, at its core, morality as applied to the use of coercive government power. That means political debates are, or should be, arguments over the morality of political programs. Viewed in those terms, post-partisanship is arguably amoral, if not outright sociopathic.
I think most people understand this point. It’s not enough to put a technocrat in charge of getting that new facility down the road open on time and running efficiently if you haven’t yet had a full discussion over the fact that it’s a concentration camp and that forcing people into it may just be fundamentally evil.
So pining for non-ideological, pragmatic, post-partisan politics isn’t just missing the point, it’s an exercise in discarding what may well be the most important factor in the process.
Recently, the importance of ideological debates have been emphasized by research that shows that people with different political views possess very different moral foundations. So we’re not just arguing over the details, but over fundamentals. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, of the University of Virginia, has profiled the moral thinking of liberals, conservatives and libertarians. Of interest to me is that, in a recent paper, Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology he and his co-authors write that libertarians like yours truly place great emphasis on liberty as a value — scoring higher on economic liberty than conservatives and higher on social liberty than liberals. “[T]hey endorse a world in which people are left alone to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, and in which nations are not tied down by obligations to other nations. They also exceed both liberals and conservatives (but are closer to liberals) in endorsing personal or
lifestyle liberty.” By contrast, liberals tend to emphasize worries about harm, benevolence, and altruism, while conservatives are concerned with conformity, loyalty, and tradition. There’s overlap among all three groups, of course, but you can’t disregard not just the important differences in values among these three groups, but the likelihood that those values will come into conflict. As the paper states, “Libertarians may fear that the
moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives (as measured by the MFQ) are claims that can be used to trample upon individual rights.” Liberals and conservatives may correspondingly see threats in the values held dear by others.
So political debate becomes ever-more clearly rooted in disagreements over the rightness or wrongness of using the power of the state in any given situation. It isn’t just squabbling over who should be in charge, but whether both the ends and means of proposed and existing policies are good, bad, or ambivalent.
Once we see how deep the moral fissures go, Bloomberg’s “pragmatism” becomes, if there was ever any doubt, an intolerance for points of view other than his own. He wants to use government power without entertaining discussions about right and wrong. That’s not non-ideological, it’s authoritarian.
And so it is with other calls for politics stripped of partisanship.
Incidentally, Haidt sees the Tea Party movement as driven more by a passion for “karma” than a desire for liberty. You can participate in his research here.
Victor MilanJanuary 31, 2011 at 11:35 am
It’ll be hard selling me the idea ideology has played any substantial role in US politics for the last half-century or more. Party affiliation seems to be all that really matters (to those who believe in such things in the first place.) Witness how the liberals and conservatives have swapped positions on civil liberties like clockwork, depending on whether a D or an R was serving as National Figurehead.
The biggest difference I can see is that Democrats seldom bother pretending to oppose big government – and conservative don’t feel bound to act as if they oppose war.
And after all, regime after regime, the same things are done. Only the lies told to sell them change.
“Post-partisanship” strikes me as the saggy old “bi-partisanship” under another name: the players are tired of even pretending to differ from one another.
J.D. TuccilleJanuary 31, 2011 at 12:44 pm
I agree that a lot of debates — especially among established politicians — are often just shadow-boxing (hence my “shouldn’t be” comment above). But there often are real debates over big policies, such as Obama’s health care proposal, that are led by figures outside the political parties, such as economists, think-tankers, media figures and the like — and these sometimes drive back-benchers in the major parties to at least make noise. I think a lot of the pining for “post-partisanship” is targeted at those arguments, which disturb what the technocrats would like to be the placid waters of governing.
Of course the party establishments themselves don’t actually stand for anything other than exercising power. Which is a drive as pragmatic as they come. And you’re probably right: the players are likely tired of the potemkin debates and would like to move to something that lets them exercise power with less fuss and noise.
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