George Saad writes in the Chicago Maroon:
“Principles of any sort have been eradicated from political discourse. If one has any sort of principles, they must be taken not as active, definite guides in the formulation of policy, but disembodied Platonic notions separate of any concrete political reality. In the mind of the modern politician, success does not consist of the fulfillment of carefully defended principles, but rather the balancing of those principles with the nebulous standard of practical success.”
He identifies one of the chief captains of unprincipled politicians as Barack Obama: “Obama, a man so obviously without convictions beyond advocacy of the politically expedient, and so lacking in vision beyond the marketing of himself as a brand, that his elevation to the status of international icon is more a sad commentary on the state of culture than an intellectual noteworthy trend.”
I think Saad has an important point that he’s gotten confused with a misunderstanding about the way politics works. Saad seems to believe that the problem with American democracy right now is that politicians aren’t toeing the line of some overarching principle. In fact, he thinks, if they stopped compromising themselves so much, they might exit the swamp of hypocrisy and start the country moving again. The difficulty with this perspective is that the reason we’re stuck is not so much the absence of strong principles as the absence of the ability to integrate competing principles.
In other words, the chief problem with Saad’s point of view is that if he got his wish and politicians started to adhere inflexibly to various principles, the whole country would grind to a halt. (In fact, it already has, more or less.) It’s too simple to hope that everyone actually believes the same things deep down in their hearts, and if we just articulate it the right way, or just go find the right evidence, we can all arrive at the same basic principles for our lives and country. There has never been this sort of unity, and the divisions run as deep as one can go. [For example, look to Fish’s article on how to interpret the constitution, or see Karl Mannheim’s work on conservative thought in Germany.] That means that Saad’s hope that the principle of “inalienable individual rights” can cure our internal divisions as a nation is unworkable in practice. The rights guaranteed in the constitution cross-cut our political divisions, and nothing about respecting the idea of inalienable rights demands that I should support the right to bear machine guns in inner cities. Nor does supporting rights demand that I interpret the constitution in terms of its intended consequences or as a book of inviolable rules (c.f. Fish). Whatever will help us, it must be something that brings us together despite our differences instead of serves as one more way for us to articulate what we disagree over.
As Mannheim points out, in fact, the key principle of a functioning democracy is not any progressive or conservative creed, nor any pro or anti capitalist stance, but the basic principle of taking seriously what other people value and trying to integrate what is good for them into your own values. This perhaps is the only principle worth being rigid about in a democracy, but it certainly does not run purely counter to political expediency. At this point, I have to defend Obama against Saad’s cynical attack. To blame Obama for having to make serious compromises to his preferred agenda in order to maintain any semblance of the integrative ideal in democracy is at best a serious mistake and at worst deceptive. Obama is rightly uninterested in vilifying anyone, including bankers, doctors, or Republicans. He sincerely believes that people are at heart good and he always gives them the chance to do the right thing first before he starts to work against them. That, if anything can be, is a profound principle of compassion and understanding in a world of cynicism and anger. To say that Obama took on the health care debate because his only interest is political expediency is inexplicable. Obama has tried harder than anyone else has in years to bring rational discourse back to domestic and foreign policy-making. He has bent over backwards to include Republicans on policy discussions, spending large amounts of time and resources talking with Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and others about their desires for reform, as well as respecting the dissents of many conservative Democrats. Political expediency in this case would be to force the issue, to throw aside effort at meaningful debate, and to simply coerce the Democratic party into line with threats.
We can go more deeply into Obama’s approach to politics if needed, but the general point is that he indeed follows a profound principle with great dignity and consistency: to take your opponents seriously, to integrate their best ideas into your own, and to try to forge a greater union. To simply advocate strong principles without an understanding of how deliberative democracy depends on the integration of opposing viewpoints is to advocate the gradual destruction of the public sphere. Which, indeed, is what’s happening. So while Saad is quite right that we do need politicians to more rigorously follow a political principle, he is wrong that “compromise” is antithetical to a principled approach to politics, and he is wrong that “inalienable individual rights” is directly helpful as a “principle” for fixing our problems. Indeed, it is our whole society’s increasing take-it-or-leave-it attitude to what we imagine as our inalienable rights that has created the fickle rage that passes for public debate these days.