Since World War II, our politics has fundamentally revolved around two traditions of thought. Last week Paul Krugman summarized this well in his column, A Tale of Two Moralities. The first holds that it is immoral for a wealthy capitalist society to allow its citizens to go without the minimum necessities of a human life: food, shelter, basic health care, and a decent education. Where this minimum threshold of welfare does not exist, the state must provide. The second morality believes that it is wrong for a government to seize a person’s wages or to define the terms of his/her behavior, which the individual alone ought to manage as a free and autonomous chooser of ends.

For Krugman, these two positions stand at fundamental odds. Common welfare and negative freedom are opposite poles. The New Deal is oil and the Reagan Revolution is water. Thus, our only choice is to prevent violence from entering the public sphere, and to fight ferociously within the law. “By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully,” Krugman writes, “but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are.”

These two perspectives, oriented around philosophical welfarism and liberterianism, have their roots in European political thought. They are continental ideas retrieved and reconstructed for the American experience.

During the past two years President Obama has worked within this familiar dichotomy. He has been a man of the left – an heir to the New Deal and the Great Society, with health care reform marking his original contribution.

One  way to interpret his current activities is that he is attempting, however, to bring a third morality fully back into the American debate after a century of neglect – a tradition of political thought that is uniquely American and that Obama feels more natural within, but that he could not rely on practically in the face of an economic crisis or politically with a 60-vote majority in the Senate demanding legislative victories. This observation has already been made my many people, most recently James Kloppenberg in his Reading Obama.

Beginning in post-Civil War America, a variety of thinkers developed pragmatism based on their skepticism of those who seemed certain that God and right was on their side. These folks – John Dewey, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes – sought humility in place of hubris and saw experimentation, democratic dialogue, and common sense as the keys to building a more perfect union. For these pragmatists, no fallible human being can alone answer the question, ‘how ought we to live together’? and no nation derives its greatness from some eternal divine favor. We all see through a glass darkly and need constant debate, continual experimentation, and simple hard work to become better as individuals and greater as a society.

Thus, in politics, these pragmatists did not begin with a vision of the good society and the ideal role of government (big or small), as we have come to expect of our politicians. Rather, they argued for enduring ideals of process – dialogue, fairness, education, hard work, and hope – and with the never-ending goal of elevating the human condition through innovation and collaborative effort. All methods of progressing on this goal were open to consideration and ruled out, through debate, by their inability to survive critical scrutiny or their failure to perform in practice. Questions of ‘big government’ and ‘limited government’ were secondary…the primary question was how to define the human condition and what actions could be reasonably taken to elevate it. Answers to these questions could result in proposals to add, and proposals to subtract.

In practice, political pragmatism can look, and be, weak, indecisive, and self-serving. Thus the reason it is often a dirty word in daily usage. Nonetheless, it is based on stronger intellectual foundations than the expedient willingness to compromise.

Perhaps the first pragmatic president, although he would not have known the word, was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln believed that humans were superior among animals in their ability “to improve their workmanship through discoveries and inventions.” And, he remains our only President to hold a U.S patent – for a method of helping riverboats float freely over shallow water. He thought deeply of religion but sought constant flexibility in his faith, once declaring that he would never officially join any church until its only demand was to love God as he saw fit, and love his neighbor as himself. This, despite the fact that he could quote whole chapters of Christian scripture from memory.

And, in politics, as a Whig and later as an anti-slavery Republican, he eschewed neat political categories. He grew government dramatically, but in the service of a Civil War that expanded individual human freedom for blacks and retracted tyrannical government in the secession states. He argued vigorously for a national bank, protective trade tarrifs, and government funding for ‘internal improvements’ and public schools – but all with the goal of empowering the common man to improve his lot in a rapidly transforming world. He argued against President Polk’s invasion of Mexico, not out of pacifism, but on the reasoned argument that the evidence for the war was scant and that public funds would be best used elsewhere.

And, in a Message to Congress on July 4, 1861 – already in the midst of his first term – Lincoln declared his philosophy of government in the clearest terms he had to-date. “The leading object of government,” Lincoln said, “is to elevate the condition of men. To lift artificial weights from all shoulders. To clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all. To afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”

This is a progressive, pragmatic vision. It asserts the government’s role in improving people’s lives…in making justice real. But it is also a vision of individual agency and empowerment – not of a perfectly elegant just society operated by select elites. Its objective is to promote the general welfare, as our Constitution demands, not provide for it.

It seems to me there have always been 2 President Obamas. One the heir to New Deal liberalism and  the other a modern Lincoln liberal of sorts, genuinely excited to build a new progressive era that works to elevate the condition of all men and women, and recalibrates government activities around the question of whether or not they serve this objective.

The 2nd Obama will dominate the remainder of this 1st term and will be articulated more fully than it has been to-date on Tuesday in his State of the Union address. He will call for adjustments to New Deal entitlements to accommodate the baby boom; additional public investments in education, infrastructure, and technology that empower individuals; revision of the tax code to both challenge the alarming trend of concentrated wealth among the super-wealthy and to lift artificial weights on the small business owner and the middle-income earner; military spending cuts to splinter the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower feared; a fairer immigration policy that embraces diversity and hard work; public-private coordination to spur energy innovation and fracture the oil oligopoly; and increased engagement of the citizenry within local communities to solve problems where we can, independent of government activity.

It will be an agenda of promotion, not provision. And, it will seem, to the observer, that Obama has compromised…that he is ‘triangulating’ between more government and less without a fixed operating principle, perhaps with two eyes on 2012. But, whether or not the effort succeeds or is at all laudable, it will be grounded in a consistent and originally American school of thought.

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