Political purism and playing the long game

Garry Wills wrote a good response to the video from Harvard Law professor Roberto Unger calling for the “defeat” of Barack Obama. Unger, who is invariably billed as Obama’s “former professor” (according to Wills he taught Obama in two classes at HLS), maintains that Obama has “failed to advance the progressive cause in the United States.” Unger’s video has some good ideas in it–or at least ideas worth considering. But the conclusion that Obama “must be defeated” comes as a complete non-sequitur. It’s unclear why supporting the (admittedly flawed) Obama is incompatible with working to make the Democratic Party and the political system in general more progressive. And it’s even less clear how four or eight years of a Romney administration would advance the cause of progressivism. Why, for example, would it be a boon to “the progressive cause” to allow the social safety net to be further shredded?

Fortunately for us, we have a pretty clear test case here. Remember back in 2000 when some liberals/progressives said that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush? And liberals had plenty of good reasons to be unhappy with the Clinton-Gore administration, arguably the most conservative Democratic administration since Grover Cleveland. Which is why some of those folks voted for Ralph Nader–helping to hand the election to Bush (with a generous assist from the Supreme Court). And yet, does anyone really think that the world was better off from a progressive point of view after eight years of Bush in the White House? (The institutionalization of the post-9/11 national security state alone is something we’ll be living with the rest of our lives.)

Wills agrees with Unger that Obama’s progressive credentials are less than stellar, but disdains Unger’s political purism:

The mistake behind all this is a misguided high-mindedness that boasts, “I vote for the man, not the party.” This momentarily lifts the hot-air balloon of self-esteem by divorcing the speaker from political taintedness and compromise. But the man being voted for, no matter what he says, dances with the party that brought him, dependent on its support, resources, and clientele. That is why one should always vote on the party, instead of the candidate. The party has some continuity of commitment, no matter how compromised. What you are really voting for is the party’s constituency. That will determine priorities when it comes to appointments, legislative pressure, and things like nominating Supreme Court justices.

To vote for a Democrat means, now, to vote for the party’s influential members—for unions (including public unions of teachers, firemen, and policemen), for black and Latino minorities, for independent women. These will none of them get their way, exactly; but they will get more of a hearing and attention—“pandering,” if you want to call it that—than they would get in a Republican administration.

To vote for a Republican means, now, to vote for a plutocracy that depends for its support on anti-government forces like the tea party, Southern racists, religious fanatics, and war investors in the military-industrial complex. It does no good to say that “Romney is a good man, not a racist.” That may be true, but he needs a racist South as part of his essential support. And the price they will demand of him comes down to things like Supreme Court appointments. (The Republicans have been more realistic than the Democrats in seeing that presidential elections are really for control of the courts.)

The independents, too ignorant or inexperienced to recognize these basic facts, are the people most susceptible to lying flattery. They are called the good folk too inner-directed to follow a party line or run with the herd. They are like the idealistic imperialists “with clean hands” in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American—they should wear leper bells to warn people of their vicinity.

The etherialists who are too good to stoop toward the “lesser evil” of politics—as if there were ever anything better than the lesser evil there—naively assume that if they just bring down the current system, or one part of it that has disappointed them, they can build a new and better thing of beauty out of the ruins. Of course they never get the tabula rasa on which to draw their ideal schemes. What they normally do is damage the party closest to their professed ideals.

I don’t know why some progressives come out at election time to bash the more liberal of the two candidates, when the more sensible course of action would be to try to move the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction between elections. Unger’s monologue consists mainly of a wish-list of lefty reforms with barely a nod in the direction of how we’re supposed to bring them about. What is so complicated about the idea of supporting the lesser evil on election day, but also keeping your eye on the long game? Conservatives seem to have become pretty adept at this “walk and chew gum at the same time” approach to politics; they support viable Republican candidates who deviate from conservative orthodoxy all the time, but they’ve also been very successful at building institutional power and gaining influence in the G.O.P. This has been a decades-long effort, but conservatives have essentially established their preferred positions on a host of issues as Republican orthodoxy. Seems like a smarter approach than “destroy the village to save it.”

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