In Politics: The Advent of Radical Pragmatists

Thomas Adcock


Take heart, ye voters of America!


The merry month of March might well have marked the beginning of the end of political lunacy in the United States, replaced by a refreshing maturity among the electorate——never mind the various fevered fanatics currently holding public office, or hoping to.


Signs are numerous that zealotry has had its day in the sun, and that radical pragmatism, if you will, shall be the Zeitgeist come November. Consider some of the parade of eventful markers of March:


Three weeks prior to his death on the first of the month——of either stroke or heart attack, likely both, according to pre-autopsy reports from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office——43-year-old right-wing crank Andrew Breitbart was captured on film as he ranted at Occupy demonstrators in Washington, D.C., “You freaks, you filthy freaks, you filthy, filthy, filthy, raping, murdering freaks!” In his memoriam for Rolling Stone magazine, Matt Taibi gleefully spoke ill of the dead.  


Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, noted graduate of right-wing televangelist Pat Robertson’s Regent University, was forced to retreat from his full-throated support of state legislation mandating transvaginal ultrasound tests for women considering abortion. When a feminine uproar hit the fan, McDonnell’s name was quickly scratched from a list of prospective Republican running mates for whoever survives a historically incendiary primary season as the Grand Old Party’s presidential standard bearer.


Syndicated radio haranguer Rush Limbaugh famously maligned Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and very soon forfeited hundreds of program sponsors, a la the newly obscure Glenn Beck. A lawsuit seeking damages for slander is under consideration, with a number of powerful attorneys offering to represent Ms. Fluke pro bono.


Also in March, Maine’s Olympia Snowe, a longtime sane Republican and member of the U.S. Senate, announced that she would not seek another term because she was fed up with the corrosive mood of Washington, which she damned as an “atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies.”


Snowe might well come to regret her decision should New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s prediction for the outcome of this year’s national elections prove true, should Washington grow more welcoming of reasonable pols such as herself.


In his op-ed essay of January 22, Friedman wrote:


"[T]he first candidate who steps out of the cartoonish politics of destruction——‘Romney is just a capitalist vulture, Obama is a Kenyan socialist’——and shocks the public by going radically responsible, radically honest, radically demanding and radically aspirational…will be our next president.”


In short, pragmatism——the primacy of practicality over purity, as stated by German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)——looks to be the next new thing on the American political scene, according to the doctrine of journalist Friedman.

And why not? It should diminish neither Democrats nor Republicans to acknowledge that parties of opposing core values can and do lead the rest of us toward mutually agreeable public policy, commonsense policy that works over the long term.


Social Security and Medicare, for instance, were accomplishments advanced by Democratic presidents and allied members of Congress. Likewise, transcontinental railroads and interstate highways came about through Republican efforts. With sore-head exceptions on both sides of the aisle, de jure racial and sexual discrimination was outlawed in bipartisan fashion. The list of big and proven successes goes on——and on and on——with nearly equal instances of primary credit earned by each of the nation’s great parties.


Contemporary opinion polls abound with a decisive majority wish overriding any single legislative initiative. It is this: Politicians should knock it off with the florid attacks and hobbling legislative tactics already, and understand that their constituents have no time for such baloney. Workaday Americans, and surely those still idled by the gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, are more interested in building a road back to prosperity than in the reductionist debate of hyper-partisan warfare.


Rumors among the Broadway showbiz community suggest that the time is ripe for a revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1968 absurdist stage play, “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead,” in which few truer words were ever dramatized than these, now so sorely fitting our political need:


"Out we come, bloodied and squawling, with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there is only one direction. And time is the only measure."

David Stockman, the White House budget director under President Ronald Reagan, is like all other members of his button-down fraternity of accountants——not given to exaggerated talk. In his new book, therefore, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, Stockman’s warning of corporate lobbying power merits serious attention by pragmatists of the coming new era:


During a few weeks in September and October 2008, American political democracy was fatally corrupted by a resounding display of expediency and raw power. Henceforth, the door would be wide open for the entire legion of Washington's K Street lobbies, reinforced by the campaign libations prodigiously dispensed by their affiliated political action committees, to relentlessly plunder the public purse.


Democratic pollster Peter Hart, speaking of a stasis in Congress that makes possible Stockman’s fears of a potential corporatist state, told The New Yorker magazine’s Jane Mayer, “It’s become a situation where the contest is how much you can destroy the system, rather than how much you can make it work. It makes no difference if you have a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ after your name. There’s no sense that this is about democracy.”


What Stockman and Hart fail to mention in any organized, codified, or merely familiar sense is a path to economic fairness that naturally yields to democracy. Surely, the fairest path forward is political pragmatism.


Accordingly, we must ask, What do we know of the two dominant American political philosophies where all might agree there is noble sentiment?


“Liberalism,” wrote former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey (1911-1978), “above all means emancipation from one’s fears, his inadequacies, from prejudice, from discrimination, from poverty.”


“Conservatism,” wrote William F. Buckley (1925-2008), “aims to maintain in working order the loyalties of the community to perceived truths, and also to those truths which in their judgment have earned universal recognition.”

During the years Harry S Truman was president (1946-53), liberals and conservatives of the Congress worked together in effecting a patchwork of federal programs that were part of the Democratic president’s “Fair Deal” proposal, put forth in his 1949 State of the Union address. There was ongoing ruckus between Republicans and Democrats, to be sure, but there was also important achievement in the cause of social justice.


Gains in public housing and education support under Truman were unparalleled in national history, according to Census Bureau annual estimates of the period. Job growth soared to the point where the unemployment rate was near zero. Wages and salaries, along with business revenues, were at all-time highs; with income rising significantly faster than prices, people were living at considerably higher standards by 1952 than in 1945, when World War II ended. Social Security benefits doubled, and the percentage of Americans living at poverty level fell from 33 percent in 1949 to 28 percent in 1952. The U.S. military and federal workforce were desegregated, giving rise to the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s.


Through his entire presidency, Truman carried the torch for his predecessor in the White House, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Until his dying day, Truman insisted on the common sense of FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights,” as espoused in 1944.


“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” said FDR. “Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”


Roosevelt went on to list what he called a Second Bill of Rights, among these:


The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; the right to a good education.


Roosevelt and Truman saw these things as commonsense rights of a democratic citizenry. In our time, these things could be seen as the unfinished business of radical pragmatists.


Author Bio:

Thomas Adcock, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, is an independent journalist, novelist, and editorial consultant based in New York City. His articles have appeared in U.S., Canadian, Mexican and European newspapers, magazines and websites, as well as American University publications. His critically acclaimed crime novels and short stories have been published worldwide.


​Photo of FDR: University of California Library

​Photo of Harry S Truman: Wikipedia

​Photo of William F. Buckley book cover: Barnes and Noble

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