The Closet Moderate: Dizzy on parties

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dizzy on parties

Continuing our navel-gazing on the question of why leftists and rightists don't understand each other, I came across this passage from a speech Benjamin Disraeli gave in 1868:
In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change, which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines. The one is a national system; the other ... is a philosophic system. Both have great advantages: the national party is supported by the fervor of patriotism; the philosophic party has a singular exception from the force of prejudice.
Disraeli was talking about the Conservative and Liberal parties of mid-19th-century Britain, but I think this distinction rings true for our own system.

Neither party has a monopoly on change. McCain and Obama both talk about changing this and reforming that, and they both mean it. But the source of that change, the theoretical first mover behind it, is quite different.

Obama, an ideological law professor, approaches problems as they fit into a grand unified theory of how things should work. People like this sort of consistency, I suppose, except when it contradicts something that is important to them. When the logic contradicts some national value or tradition, that makes Obama appear to be an elite arugula-eating fairy who doesn't share America's values. Taking things to their logical conclusion looks good in a law-review article, but in person it is cold, often uncomfortable.

McCain, an pragmatic military man, approaches problems by seeing what will work, what feels right. He does this whether his various solutions conform to an internally consistent logic of not. People think this makes him a rebel (or "maverick," if you must,) but to his mind it's the only thing that makes sense. While he's willing to risk non-conformity with rightist or leftist philosophy, McCain naturally gravitates toward tradition -- consider, for example, that he followed in the same career as his father and grandfather. For people who don't share his respect for tradition, this looks erratic or stupid, and makes people think he's just making shit up as he goes.

So which of these approaches to political decision-making makes sense to you? Which one infuriates you? As in Disraeli's day, practitioners of each theory may both be interested in change and progress, but will likely disagree strongly on what that change should be and how it should be accomplished.


Fake Steve Hawking said...

It's funny - I see the same distinction between the parties (though maybe not these particular candidates), but I see it in reverse. One thing that has always turned me off to the conservative side (as I've been exposed to it) is the emphasis on abstract ideas like honor and justice, and less emphasis on doing what works. I find the liberal side is wants to do what works for society as a whole, even if the market isn't completely free, you don't have all your liberties and it's not totally fair.

But maybe the left and right are alienated by the parts of the other that borrow from the libertarians?

Closet Canuck said...

I'm with FSH on this one. I thought the reverse too.

karinms said...

FSH is right on this one. I really think that pragmatism is a more liberal characteristic.

Silent Cal said...

FSH: I don't mean to say that leftists are based in just any abstract ideas, but that they are based specifically in logic. You call honor and justice "abstract ideas"; I say these are traditional ideas. That is why the left eschews them whe they conflict with their logic. The right, on the contrary, eschews logic when it conflicts with tradition.

Corey Goldiner said...

Something bothers me a little about your use of the phrase pragmatic military man. First if pragmatism is a typical trait of military men, McCain certainly does not possess this trait, Iraq=utter lack of pragmatism.

Assuming the military is generally pragmatic is detrimental to our country. Wasting billions of dollars for testing weapons we can barely dream of scenarios for using is really problematic. I know your a small government guy- so I'm surprised that you so casually associate the military with pragmatism.

Silent Cal said...

I shouldn't have mentioned pragatism versus idealism; the point of the post was Disraeli's distinction between tradition and philosophy. Our national traditions mean a great deal to McCain; to Obama, they are irrelevant where they contradict his philosophy.

That said, Corey, I think you're confusing "pragmatic" with "a good idea." Many who supported the invasion of Iraq did so because of an ideal -- that neo-Wilsonian zeitgeist that said we should make the world safe for democracy, by any means necessary. I don't think that was McCain's reason for voting in favor of the war.

McCain and others like him saw the specific thing -- toppling Saddam Hussein -- as a good thing, and applied the theories from there. Others saw, as I did, the theory -- spreading liberal democracy with the sword -- as a good thing, and applied it to the specific case of Iraq.

Truth be told, back in 2002 I thought we should invade Syria first, not Iraq, but I thought Iraq could also use some regime change at some point.

Corey said...

Safety for democracy at all costs, is an ideal that fails miserably in practice. Hence the miserable failure in Iraq was not pragmatic or it ignored the "primacy of practice". Have to brush up on my Dewey but I don't think I'm misusing the term pragmatism.

I can live with the characterization of Obama as following a well defined philosophical paradigm.