The touchstone for liberals, as everyone including liberals may be aware, is the future, largely an imaginary construct. The hope and change mantra of the Obama administration occurs in a future those living in the present are busily constructing. It’s a work in progress.
Former President Bill Clinton constructed his successful campaign on hope not only because he claimed to be from Hope, Arkansas. The theme song of Clinton’s Camelot was Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” with its refrain, “Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone” – and good riddance to it. Mr. Clinton’s boast that he was “the man from Hope,” technically true since he was born in the hospital there and lived in the town for a very short while, was later lampooned by political docudramatist Michael Moore.
Mr. Clinton’s formative years were spent in Hot Springs, a town with a far different cachet. Dee Brown, the author of “Wounded Knee,” was interviewed in Mr. Moore’s film on the possible connection between Hot Springs, well known as a stomping grounds for gamblers and mob figures, and the former president:
“Well, I think Bill does have a hard time making up his mind. And I think he picked it up growing up in Hot Springs. Hot Springs has always been an ambivalent town. Their view towards the gangster people was – Well, these are bad guys, but they’ve got a lot of money; so, just let them come.”
It’s doubtful whether any modern president would wish to construct his political campaign around the Christian pillars of faith or charity. But, if tomorrow -- which we should never stop thinking about -- should deliver to us such a president, he likely will be a Democrat, some of whom have in the past been faithful to fanciful imaginative constructs and more than charitable with other people’s money.
The touchstone for conservatives is the past, what G. K. Chesterton used to call “the democracy of the dead,” also a fertile field for roving imaginations. Conservatives consult Edmund Burke because Burke was an important small “d” dead larval republican, as were the founders of the republic some constitutionalists are trying so desperately to keep. Supreme Court justices who have escaped deconstructionist legal studies sometimes tip their hat to the founders and the constitution in their decisions.
Those on the left and those on the right have their political saints and heroes. The grand fete most Democrats in Connecticut attend together each year is called the Jefferson, Jackson, Bailey dinner for good reasons. Republicans have their own party gathering, the Prescott Bush dinner, the title of which suggests a lamentable lack of imagination. On the other hand, since Republicans do not spend much of their time constructing in their minds political utopias that are afterwards deployed as fantasy political programs, perhaps the title of the dinner may be in some sense appropriate. Prescott Bush was a nice man – quiet, inoffensive, harmless as a political theorist, the beau ideal of commentators wedded to limp-wristed moderation.
Too much should not be made of all this. Touchstones are touchstones, not anchors. One touches them and moves on. But these orientations do determine to a great extent one’s direction, and in politics direction is more than half the battle. It matters a great deal which hand, the left or the right, is resting on the tiller and, more importantly, the ideological disposition of the mind directing the hand.
In Connecticut, the sharp liberal-conservative divide elsewhere in the country has been palliated by a penchant for what some commentators have called pragmatic solutions. Of course, there are two kinds of political pragmatists: left leaning Democratic pragmatists, and right leaning Republican pragmatists. In the nutmeg state, pragmatism is little more than a mask used to disguise political orientations.
As used by many commentators, the term “pragmatic” is a synonym for “compromising political insider.” But multi-term political operatives also come in two flavors – left and right. The so called political “middle” is not a descriptive political term; it is a halfway house between two philosophies, liberalism and conservativism, a comfy spot for timorous legislators who fear decisive action.
According to the current mistaken view, pragmatism is little more than compromise. Cutting the baby in half to solve a problem of paternity would be regarded in Connecticut as a pragmatic solution. But real pragmatism is a method, usually scientific, of testing theories through their practical applications, and any genuine pragmatist would reject the Solomononic solution on the grounds that such a compromise could only end with a dead baby. In some quarters in Connecticut, the man who arrives at practical consequence through a logical thought process, would he hooted down as an ideologue. In the Biblical story, the real pragmatist is the real mother of the baby who rejects compromise because Solomon’s theoretical solution will lead ineluctably to murder.
Ambivalence is not pragmatism.