In my last column, I asked why so many liberals were getting taken for a ride on John McCain’s so-called Straight Talk Express (“Dems lose out in courting McCain,” 3/21). Since then, Jerry Falwell has proudly announced that McCain will be the keynote speaker at this year’s commencement ceremony for Falwell’s Liberty University. Hopefully, McCain’s embrace of the man he famously called an “agent of intolerance” will help disabuse some left-leaning Yale students of their belief that McCain is an agent of progress. But chances are that others will just mourn that McCain is speaking to Falwell’s student body and not our own.
Last month, I argued that reinforcing the fawning McCain myths has serious costs for progressives. Praising McCain, a committed conservative, as a voice of reason reinforces the prevalent media narrative in which conservatism represents the mainstream of American politics. Ironically, it may be an aversion to understanding politics this way — as a contest between fundamentally opposed ideological visions — that helps to explain McCain’s peculiar popularity on this famously Democratic-voting campus.
The McCain of myth, the unyieldingly principled and incomparably pragmatic leader who stands astride petty partisan divides and offers only straight talk, offers a convenient symbol for those Yalies who identify an excess of ideology as the main problem with politics today and pragmatism as the solution. Such students were well-represented at a recent Independent Party debate on the merits of activism and debate, where a former president of the Yale Political Union declared, to widespread cheers, “The fundamental problem with American politics is that people don’t listen to each other.”
Listening to people you disagree with is, of course, pivotal to improving ideas and strengthening arguments. But as long as some people wield more power than others for reasons some people support and others oppose, dialogue will not eliminate division.
That’s because we face real choices — choices which should be informed, but cannot be resolved, by rigorous empiricism. How much sacrifice should we ask from those who have most to support programs for those who have least? Which resources should be understood as public goods, and how should they be supported and protected? What rights are fundamental to the freedom of the individual? Under what circumstances is it just to use lethal force? These issues inspire clashing coalitions, each with their share of erudite advocates who have heard both sides. So did the Civil Rights Act.
While partisan competition is a zero-sum game, policy-making is not. Liberals do not judge the efficacy of government by how many dollars it spends any more than conservatives judge the efficacy of government by how many civilians it kills. Let’s seek out the best information we can find to help us evaluate the trade-offs of our chosen policy implements. But let’s not pretend that pragmatism itself is an answer to the choices we face. On a campus where the presidents of the Yale College Democrats and Republicans can co-author a piece supporting the Earned Income Tax Credit (“Dems, Republicans must unite for EITC,” 3/28), it’s enticing to believe that we can go, as a friend of mine promised in a speech last semester, “not left, not right, but forward.” But the breadth of support for the EITC — a tax rebate directed at low-wage workers — demonstrates that people with clashing ideologies can both find particular policies to do more good than harm (some on the right worry that it encourages workers to depend on the government; some on the left worry that it encourages employers to pay low wages). It does not render those clashing ideologies irrelevant.
Clashing ideologies are thus what we should hope and expect to see represented in the halls of Congress, a body whose main problem many Yalies identify as an excess of partisanship. Partisanship in the literal sense — loyalty to a party over ideology — is indeed a problem in our government (and our opinion journalism as well). But too often, it’s adherence to and advocacy of ideological vision that earns our elected officials accusations of “partisanship” from those convinced that reasonable people armed with open minds and ample evidence would come to shared conclusions.
Many of the same self-styled pragmatists who hurl the partisanship label are the strongest critics of a signal affront to party loyalty: the growing support amongst Connecticut Democrats for Ned Lamont’s primary challenge to Joe Lieberman. Tellingly, rather than setting out to persuade Lieberman’s critics that he has a better vision than Lamont, Lieberman’s most vocal backers on this campus have criticized the very idea of voting for a candidate based on what he believes. Marshall Shaffer argued on this page last month that Democrats will become “closed-minded” unless we support candidates with “all types of viewpoints” (“Lieberman can help keep Dems diverse,” 3/2). But contra Shaffer, robust citizenship does not lie in voting for the most reasonable-seeming candidate, whatever his beliefs, out of faith that evidence and equanimity will guide him to the right answers. Our responsibility as voters in a representative democracy is to consider conflicting viewpoints, choose ones we agree with, and pursue the election of qualified candidates who share them.
Needless to say, this is work progressives need to get better at. Obscuring the real ideological choices ahead is not the place to start.
Josh Eidelson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.