It’s clumsy. Perhaps it’s a little rough around the edges. But it’s happening. People are coming back to principles.
By contrast, when I hear the President’s rhetoric, I’m reminded of the Chicago school of pragmatism. Obama sprang from this tradition whether he knows it or not. You can see pragmatist strains at work in Obama’s decision-making, in his careful vacillations and, increasingly, hear it in his overplayed oratory. Except for Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul, most politicians are whisked along by calculations of political expediency. Living by such calculations means that bumper-sticker image of progressivism from the campaign is fading fast. A pragmatist acts, looking for what will work. The people grow disillusioned. Any wooly-headed ideas Obama came in with are now but echoes of ‘08.
Whatever you think about Progressivism intellectually, it has the ability to nourish a certain kind of spirit (i.e. for those who value social equality and paternalism). But there has never been anything in pragmatism to nourish the spirit. Leadership is mostly tone-setting. And that’s what makes pragmatism, well, impractical for a leader. Turns out that to unite people and to keep them united, you have to offer them an organizing framework—one grounded in people’s emotions, or better, cornerstones cut from their sense of right and wrong. What “works” for this policy or that isn’t enough. That’s why the Center-Right has some reasons to be optimistic—despite a decade of unprincipled Republican power and a poorly-spoken executive who managed to coast on fumes of fear.
People are turning back to our Founding Principles not just because said principles are carved from core American instincts like suspicion of authority and a do-it-yourself outlook. People are also turning to principles again because they work. Our founding institutions work. Markets work. Giving freely works. As it happens, real American pragmatism isn’t technocratic, which makes Tocqueville more American than Dewey.
Most people don’t have time to get into policy minutiae. They can, however, see what tracks with their principles. Ten come to mind for me:
1. The Rule of Law means that laws should not privilege certain persons or groups.
2. Legislation should rarely, if ever, make us less free.
3. The Government shouldn’t use my family’s resources to fix problems it helped create.
4. The Government shouldn’t use our grandchildren’s resources for short term political gain or band-aid policies.
5. The Government should not subsidize personal irresponsibility, profligacy or dependence.
6. The power of Government should be checked.
7. Markets – exchange between consenting adults – should be free.
8. We Americans can get on with it. We don’t need nannying or nudging.
9. Problems are better dealt through local community than central authority.
10. Big government solutions cause terrible unintended consequences.
Intellectually, principles give people a kind of ready measuring stick for policy. Spiritually, they offer a seat for the political soul. It also happens that, since liberty works better than big government, pragmatism gets to be a welcome side-effect of people pursuing their happiness—whether through entrepreneurship, charity or living their lives without interference from political elites. These principles and these dispositions define America--or at least they ought to.