14 October 2010

A philosophy of partisanship?

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic, where he's allowed to pontificate as a "Washington Diarist" on the back page of most issues. In the current issue, he complains of "the strange soullessness of this thoughtful man," referring to the President of the United States. Wieseltier speculatively attributes that perceived soullessness to the President's supposed belief "that he is the beginning" and his apparent dismissal of the past as "a long era of errors." Obama, in Wieseltier's view, is a creature of his time, a time characterized by an "idiotic belief in the complete transfiguration of human life in our time, in the final banishment of opacity and obscurity, by means of data and the quantification of inwardness," etc. Deploring this modernism, Wieseltier would have us keep mindful of the "ghosts" of history, whose "public role" is to "spoil the adoration of the new" with "a certain shaming force." The ghosts themselves seem to be haunted by both the anti-political mentality of Tea Partiers and Glenn Beck and the post-partisan pretensions of the President, for which the traditional term is "Mugwumpery." Wieseltier sees Obama as a politician who thinks he transcends politics, or at least partisanship, in keeping with his purported sense of "the superiority of the very latest." In short, Obama is one of those Democrats The New Republic frequently criticizes for putting on airs above the old-school horse-trading and compromising of party politics. Against such heresy, Wieseltier submits this peroration:

For there is honor in partisanship, when the differences are philosophical; and for the purposes of social change, politics is all we have. Faction is not only a reality, it is also a calling.

My own view is that once partisanship becomes philosophical, all is lost. Wieseltier is using "philosophical differences" as a euphemism for ideology, a habit of thought that ascribes philosophical (if not eschatological) significance to practical questions and conflicts of interests. Once the Framers constituted a federal democratic republic, philosophical differences were automatically minimized. The size of government does not rise to the level of a philosophical subject. Disagreements over tax rates are not philosophical, nor are debates over the necessity of regulations. All such questions were meant by Madison and his collaborators to be resolved by compromising interests, not through the refutation of some so-called theory of government by another. There are no "philosophical" differences between the Republican and Democratic parties; believing so would be giving them too much credit. Ideology, like religion, is a matter of faith, the conviction that one's side has all the correct answers in advance of most of the questions. Partisanship may be honorable when forming a party is forbidden and the partisans are honorable in the first place, and in such cases faction may well be a "calling" in the inspired sense of the word, but there is no inherent honor in the pooling of electioneering resources on behalf of ideological conformity. As for the claim that "for the purpose of social change, politics is all we have," all I ask is: how does the honor of partisanship follow from that?

Wieseltier waxes poetic to finish his column: "The Beltway is a venal place, but the streets of Washington are paved with the Constitution, the Constitution is the mortar between every brick of every building, it is in the air and the light, you can find it even in a brandy glass, and it can get you through the day." That last is perhaps a telling metaphor for someone apparently hooked on old-school politics, even if he's only a hanger-on. A lot of people have nostalgia for a bygone day when pols dickered cordially over drinks, and that kind of government may still be preferable to TEAtotaling, but writers like Wieseltier have an almost too sensual appreciation of the old art, not to mention a characteristically liberal emphasis on process over result. He worries that politics is getting too dull or too coarse, but politics isn't meant to entertain us or even provide stimulating company. But a more effective politics suitable to a time that is different from the past could well be less exciting or even less sociable than what Wieseltier prefers. I'm sure he considers himself a man of moderation, but I wonder whether he's had too much of the metaphorical brandy and mistaken it for his meal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

1) We're all "soulless". There is no evidence to the contrary.

"...complete transfiguration of human life in our time..."

If not in our time, when? How soon is now? If we agree that "opacity and obscurity" in politics or government is bad, why continually put off dealing with it? Would Mr. Wieseltier simply have us go to sleep and dream it away?

Maintaining the status quo is not progress. Time cannot simply be put into park and left to idle.

Change is the nature of the universe. If there is any "natural law" it is that change is inevitable. As rational human beings, we have the potential to control change in a positive way, to grow. We also have the propensity to force change in a negative way, to destroy.

As inheritors of an animal nature from our earliest progenitors, we have a tendency to lapse back on instinct, albeit evolved instincts. When this happens, we lose our ability to be proactive (allowing us to control change) and become reactive (allowing change - or fear of change - to control us).