Pragmatic Compromises Will Never Yield the World We Seek

Shadow art

Credit: Creative Commons/Eoin O’Mahony.

How is it that although the Democrats won more votes in the congressional elections than the Republicans, and though Obama won a decisive majority in the presidential elections of both 2008 and 2012, the Democrats act as though it is they who are on the defensive and, while laying out a series of differences to the details of the Right’s agenda, continually capitulate to the fundamentals of the Republican way of thinking on the economy, foreign policy, military policy, the environment, immigration, and more?

We’ve sometimes argued that the liberals in Congress and the White House need to develop a backbone so that they can stand up for what they believe in (or at least for what their constituents have been led to believe they stand for). Liberals are too often liberal about their liberalism, too ready to jump for consensus or a middle path. As a result they end up supporting new wars (“only bitsy wars, not super-big wars”) and screwing over poor people and middle-income people (“just a little, not too badly”) in an effort to compromise.

But that really isn’t adequate to explain why over and over again the liberals in the Democratic Party seem so unwilling to go to the mat and fight it out, while Republicans seem to do that so frequently and so well.

Nor is it sufficient to point to Obama’s now famed distaste for conflict and propensity to compromise even before fighting for what he supposedly believes in. If, as various psychological studies have pointed out, Obama has always been conflict averse, the question remains as to why the liberal base of the Democratic Party championed his candidacy, when there were other figures in their party (including other African American politicians) who had a far greater willingness to fight for liberal ideals?

Our answer is this: the Democrats and the liberals are constantly compromising to their right (and not to their left) because they share the same worldview and ideology of many on the political Right, even while they differ on the best strategies for implementing that worldview.

Liberals’ Capitulation to the Ethos of Capitalism

The worldview to which I refer is the dominant worldview of global capitalism: that human beings are primarily interested in maximizing their own material self-interest, and that for most the bottom line comes down to economic well-being and individual rights. It’s a worldview summed up by the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid”¾the supposed wisdom of Democratic Party consultant James Carville, whom the media dubbed the guide that helped Bill Clinton win the White House in 1992.

This is the worldview that underlies the work of the founding fathers, whose Declaration of Independence became the basis of President Obama’s second inaugural address: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

During both his 2012 campaign and his subsequent public talks, Obama has explicated “the pursuit of happiness” by describing it as “the American dream,” which in turn he defines as the equal opportunity everyone should have to become financially secure if they work with full energy and lead their lives responsibly.

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