25 May 2009

Ass kicks elephant: the failure of GOP ideology

Is the American Republican Party slowly sliding into political irrelevance? It’s ironic that the nation which founded the Pragmatist school of philosophy in the 19th century should have a major party that prizes evergreen theories over prosaic, practical outcomes. When it came to determining ‘truth’ values, American Pragmatists like John Dewey believed that it wasn’t an issue of theory versus practice but rather of “intelligent practice versus uninformed, stupid practice”. And to exercise the former one must be committed to facts and figures, even if - and especially when - they do not give us the news we want.

During his questioning by Congress regarding the role libertarian ideology played in his decisions, former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan insisted that “to exist, you need an ideology”. Well, that depends on what you mean by ‘ideology’. If ‘ideology’ refers to a general conception one has of reality based on one’s limited knowledge and experience, then yes, each of us necessarily follows an ideology imposed by our lack of omniscience. But if by ‘ideology’ we mean a set of beliefs or convictions that are true and valid for all time regardless of empirical evidence that refute or undermine those beliefs, then no, we don’t need that sort of ideology for us to exist. In fact, that sort of pig-headedness can harm us.

Yet it is that kind of ‘bad’ ideology that Republicans follow, one based on sacred first principles rendered infallible simply through the passage of time rather than having their veracity regularly tested and the principles revised if required. Whether it's about the proper role of government ("as small as possible, please"), or social values ("the old ways are always best, thank you very much"), or foreign policy ("hit them before they hit us"), the Republican Party largely defines itself by core principles that are non-negotiable. Ever. And if they are forced to give ground on any contentious issue, it is only done with great reluctance and bitter enmity towards the unpatriotic liberal squishes weakening their great country.

Centrist parties tend to be pragmatic parties (whether they are philosophical Pragmatists with a capital ‘P’ is irrelevant), if only because they engage in realpolitik to a greater degree. For all the cynicism of those more idealistically inclined, centrist policies deliver the goods insofar as compromises made produce more benefits than costs to society. Yet when moderate Republicans like Senator Arlen Specter along with 200,000 GOP Pennsylvanians switched over to the Democratic Party, some indignant Republicans expressed relief at having gotten rid of their ‘weak links’. But as Michael Grunwald observed in his May 18 TIME article ‘Is the Party Over?’, you can’t have a centre-right coalition when you’ve said good riddance to the centre. GOP defections only leave the party even more right-wing than before. This in turn has the ‘vicious cycle’ effect of making the Republican Party even more out of touch with its moderate elements, which then triggers further defections.

The Republicans’ pugnacious religiosity doesn’t help either. Now, American Democrats aren’t exactly on the cheer squad for the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and other so-called ‘New Atheists’. Yet the GOP wear their Christian faith on their sleeves with a bigotry that compromises their political savvy. Republicans are more inclined than their Democrat compatriots to affirm that America was founded as a Christian nation, and to equate ‘traditional’ values with explicitly Christian ones. Cleaving to religious beliefs can be deleterious to the objectivity of public policy, whether in scientific research or social institutions like marriage. Policies are then crafted from a priori assumptions on morality rather than being based on hard, impartial facts.

Still, not everyone has been won over by the Democrats’ insistence on pragmatic politics. On Salon.com Mobile, Glenn Greenwald attacks the Obama camp’s triumphalist declaration that we have entered an era where “pragmatism and competence trumps all considerations”, particularly ideological ones. In his online essay ‘Ideology vs pragmatism: is one more important than the other?’ Greenwald argues

If one discards the need for ideology in favor of ‘pragmatism’ and ‘competence’ – as so many people seem eager to do – then it’s difficult to see how one could form opinions… beyond a crude risk-benefit analysis (i.e. ‘pragmatism’).

Greenwald is wrong to reduce pragmatism – more so philosophical Pragmatism – to a ‘crude risk-benefit analysis’. Pragmatism may be ultimately concerned with outcomes, but the sort of outcomes that are desired depend on one’s intentions. And these intentions are coloured by whether one chooses to accept empirical evidence – facts – as a guide to action, or whether one chooses to ignore the evidence in favour of pre-conceived convictions. Yes, both options are each a kind of ideology, as I described above. But the latter is ‘bad’ ideology because it spits in the face of verifiable facts and instead goes with inexplicable gut instinct. Greenwald also commits the 'false dichotomy' fallacy by presenting the issue as 'ideology versus pragmatism'. Remember Dewey: it's not about theory (ideology) versus practice (pragmatism). It's about good theory that produces good practice versus bad ideology that produces bad outcomes.

The Iraq War as a Bush fiasco wasn’t the result of ideology per se. It was the child of two parents: one was incorrect intel (that is, lack of facts) and the other was a self-glorifying complex where the USA cast itself in the role of righteous saviour delivering Iraqis – and the rest of the world - from evil terrorists and dictators (demonstrating the 'self-evident truth' that Americans are invariably the good guys). A pragmatic approach would omit these two toxic ingredients. Far from being ‘crude’, a pragmatic risk-benefit analysis of any issue – especially one as traumatic as war – would be sophisticated and sensitive to nuance. Gut instincts are rarely either.

When it comes down to the decisive factor, the main reason why the Democratic Party won power in both the White House and Congress is because of the ‘good’ sort of ideology they practise and promote. Even throughout their time on the political sidelines during the Bush era the Democrats stood for non-partisanship and opposed overheated demagoguery. So long as the Republicans refuse to reflect on how their ‘bad’ kind of ideology has brought them low, the GOP will languish in the elephant pen while the pragmatic and competent ass runs the show. To the benefit of us all.


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