Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ideas Have Consequences: Progressive Pragmatists, Idealists and the Future of Obama Administration

In my wrap-up posting about Mr. Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame, I concluded,

If there is going to be a resurgence of progressivism under this administration, that resurgence is going to have to come from the public itself, insofar as citizens become fed up with the cultural, political, and religious stalemates the right has produced for us for too many years now, while liberals appease the right and refuse to stand up, or to imagine a truly democratic society.

Which is to say that the moral backbone of progressive change in the Obama era is going to have to come, I believe, from progressive groups themselves, and not from the president and his advisors. I believe the president himself has that backbone, though I also believe he is, in many respects, a classic liberal who is willing to ignore strong moral considerations as he engages in pragmatic balancing acts. And it seems increasingly evident to me that he has surrounded himself with advisors who, to an even greater extent, are tone-deaf to the moral underpinnings of the agenda of change they talk about, and willing at every turn to ignore those underpinnings as they tinker, try to anticipate the winds of change, and seek to remain on top through it all.

And in a subsequent posting on the same theme, I noted that the power of the political and religious right to play unholy culture-war games remains strong. I pointed to the continuing ability of economic elites who benefit from the culture wars to disseminate lies through the mainstream media. And I noted the concern of those elites “to combat the emergence of a new coalition of progressive people of faith at this point in our nation's history.”

As a follow-up to these observations, I’d like to note some significant recent discussion about the diverging strategies of progressive pragmatists and progressive idealists (or, as Frederick Clarkson’s critique of centrist orthodoxy notes, using Mark Silk’s terminology, priests and prophets) in the Obama era. The pragmatist-idealist distinction is Chip Berlet’s, in an important recent article entitled “Common Ground: Winning the Battle, Losing the Culture War.” Frederick Clarkson highlights this essay in his latest posting at Talk to Action.

Berlet centers his analysis on the concept of “frames.” He argues that the fundamental struggle going on among progressives who support the new president, but who divide along pragmatist-idealist lines, is the question of how to frame the debate for the progressive agenda.

Progressive pragmatists are persuaded that progressive movements have no choice except to reach out to evangelical voters of the center and moderate right at this point in history. In the view of pragmatists, poll numbers demonstrate that Obama won the elections—and will continue to enjoy success as a leader—by forming a coalition that joins progressives and evangelical voters. The decision to give a high profile to Pastor Rick Warren at the inauguration reflected the intent of the new administration to follow a pragmatist course with outreach to the evangelical community.

Berlet agrees that outreach to evangelical voters is important, if progressives expect to use the mandate for change represented by the presidential election to move their agenda forward. However, in his view the pragmatist stance concedes too much to the religious right: it allows the right (and its centrist-to-moderately right evangelical supporters) to frame the discussion.

In Berlet’s view, before we talk about building a progressive coalition that holds together evangelicals and progressive groups, “we need clearer criteria to determine who we seek to work with”:

If one wants to work in coalition with Christian evangelicals, perhaps it would be better to start by talking with Progressive Idealists, the religious left, and a variety women’s rights and gay rights activist groups to line up our support. Then together we can analyze the source of the ideological opposition (in this case the Christian Right) and develop a counter-frame. Finally, we can reach out to moderate and mildly conservative evangelicals using our counter-frame in a way that emphasizes common interests.

A counter-frame: as Berlet notes, social thinkers including Erving Goffman, Charlotte Ryan, and George Lakoff have argued persuasively that, when we allow our opponents to frame a discussion, we lose. We lose more than we gain when we permit the opposition to provide the terms that frame how we see our challenges and what we decide to do about those challenges. In Posner’s view, “[t]hat’s what the Christian Right has foisted on Democratic centrists—a rigged frame.”

Posner notes several debilitating consequences of the progressive pragmatist move to the center. One is that many liberal Democrats have allowed themselves to be convinced that “there is something inherently unseemly about advocating for reproductive or LGBT rights,” because continued advocacy for these causes in the face of fierce opposition from the Christian right prolongs the culture wars.

Another consequence of permitting the Christian right to provide the frame within which progressives approach issues like reproductive and gay rights is that we are led to see these issues as “problems” to be solved, rather than as challenges in which human rights are at stake. The alliance with evangelicals results in a weakening of the rhetoric of rights—human rights—in the Democratic party, such that progressives begin avoiding the very phrase that provides moral underpinning to their progressive causes.

As in a pre-election Huffington Post article on this theme, Berlet notes that people who expect to be taken seriously as moral agents cannot reduce human rights to political commodities. When we submit human rights issues to pragmatic considerations that diminish the force of our commitment to rights, we yield valuable moral ground—moral ground necessary to any viable program of progressive change:

. . . [I]it is clear that strong Democratic Party positions that stress community values as intertwined with social justice trump Christian Right campaigns against abortion and gay rights, even within the evangelical community. There is no need for Democrats to compromise on issues that reflect basic human rights. And to do so is morally wrong, even if it is pragmatically expedient.

And: “. . . [S]ince Reagan, the numbers do not suggest that compromise with the Christian Right even makes pragmatic sense—much less moral sense.”

And so, where to go with this analysis? Not to the White House, it appears: as I have repeatedly argued on this blog, even if Mr. Obama is attuned to the moral dimensions of these human rights struggles (and I continue to believe he is), the president is clearly persuaded by his pragmatist advisors that taking the moral stand in the struggles will hurt him politically. And, as I’ve noted, nothing compels someone who has made promises to combat injustice done to others to deliver on those promises. Other than that person’s conscience that is . . . .

No, as the opening section of this posting notes, I have come to the conclusion that the moral backbone of progressive change in the Obama era is going to have to come from progressive groups themselves, and not from the president and his advisors. Chip Berlet ends up at the same point:

This is more than just a squabble over who among the religious gets to claim the name progressive, it’s a struggle over whether or not the Obama administration will follow the path blazed by community organizers seeking social, economic, and gender justice. This will not happen unless there is sufficient pressure on them to do so. Social movements pull political movements toward them, not the other way around.

As Jacob Weisberg recently noted at Slate, Mr. Obama “sees the middle ground as high ground.” But this is a pre-moral conviction, when the moral insight one attains through listening and dialogue does not translate into solid moral commitment—commitment to do something in the face of injustice, when one can do something:

This is a wonderful instinct that is bettering America's image and making domestic politics more civil. But listening is not a moral stance, and elevating it to one only highlights the question of what Obama really stands for. The consensus-seeker repudiates torture but doesn't want to investigate it; he endorses gay equality but not in marriage or the military; he thinks government's role is to do whatever works. I continue to suspect him of harboring deeper convictions.

We are at a tipping-point moment in the framing of issues like the human rights of gay human beings as moral issues. For a number of decades now, neoconservatives and their religious apologists have succeeded in capturing the term “moral,” particularly when it comes to issues of gender, sexual orientation, and reproductive rights.

Now, the right’s exclusive ownership of the term “moral” is being hotly contested not only by progressives, but by the center itself. In the case of human rights for gay persons, two cultural developments in the waning part of the 20th century and the opening of the 21st century have radically shifted our culture’s perception of where the moral frame should be placed.

The first of these is the growing awareness of the public at large of the humanity of—and thus, the indefensible brutality of discrimination against—gay and lesbian persons. Too many of us have made our lives and stories public now, for the right to continue its malevolent depiction of us as sub-human and perverse—to continue that depiction successfully, that is. We are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, co-workers, those sitting in the pew next to everyone else: we have a face, and that face does not correspond to the demonic one the right wishes the public to see, when it smears homosexuals.

The second important development shifting the center’s perception of the moral frame in discussions of gay people and gay human rights at this point in history is the increasingly evident moral bankruptcy of the political and religious right. People who have exposed themselves as immoral agents have a hard time convincing others, when they claim to be spokespersons for morality.

As Stuart Whatley notes in a HuffPo discussion today, conservatives' current strategy of making same-sex marriage the centerpiece of their challenge to Obama is not without significant risk—and that risk lies precisely in what the public at large, the center, may well come to think of the morality of this political strategy:

If conservatives wish to elevate their fight against same-sex marriage to primus inter pares without a smarting backlash, they will have to somehow justify this exclusive denial of rights as something other than hidebound bigotry. Indeed, a mis-tackle of this issue could very well transform the soi disant “moral majority” into an immoral minority, considering that an increased percentage of people will consider such a position to be driven more by social sadism than personal righteousness.

Ideas have consequences, as neoconservative thinkers have never tired of reminding us, echoing Richard M. Weaver. Faced with the waning power of the religious and political right to define the moral center, progressives may well decide to continue yielding moral ground to the right by “reaching out” and broadening the progressive center—even if this means muting progressive rhetoric about and commitment to human rights.

If progressive pragmatists choose to continue down that road now, under the Obama administration, however, there will be some pragmatic consequences to their decision. While it may be true that nothing can compel me to behave morally even when I see clearly the moral thing to do in a situation, persistent morally obtuse behavior on the part of leaders who claim to be all about progressive change siphons off my energy for progressive change, when pragmatist politicians finally declare the time is now right to move ahead.

Though my moral commitment to change in a number of important areas of contemporary culture—including the areas of gender and race—will not wane even when I detect moral betrayals and moral waffling in leaders in those areas, my energy for solidarity and for commitment does shift. Moral betrayal and moral waffling among leaders committed to change grounded in moral values impede my willingness (and, I suspect, that of others) to commit myself and act.

Ideas have consequences. Not very long ago, a friend of mine looked for the second time in a few years at an opening with the Sojourners organization founded by Jim Wallis. Wallis is at the center of the movement to join the energies of progressives and evangelicals. Wallis has also been notably resistant to gay rights, for much of his career.

My friend happens to be gay and in a long-term relationship. Before he looked at this job seriously, I advised him that, were I in his shoes, I would find out what Sojourners says and does about gay people and gay rights. Does Sojourners, for instance, have a policy of providing partner benefits for a gay spouse or gay partner?

On both occasions when a position at Sojourners opened, my friend took my advice. He asked. He was told both times that there are no partner benefits. The first time my friend approached Sojourners was before Obama’s election. The second time was after the election.

It appears that nothing has changed at Sojourners following Mr. Obama’s election—not, that is, for gay people. And, as a result, I find my energy for an organization in whose goals I wholeheartedly believe, and to which I have offered support in the past, significantly diminished.

Ideas have consequences. Lack of commitment to human rights for everyone on the part of groups claiming to stand for progressive moral change siphons off energy for the very changes those groups advocate. My second story has to do with the Notre Dame events last week.

Shortly before the president came to Notre Dame, I received an email request from Catholics United for the Common Good, asking if I would give financial support for an ad to appear at the time of the Notre Dame speech, which would underscore the widespread support the president has among Catholics.

Normally, I would have clicked through the menu of choices and made a donation—strait as our financial circumstances are now. After all, I am passionately committed to broadening the Catholic witness about issues of justice and peace. But I am committed to doing so precisely because I believe that groups committed to human rights deserve my support. It is that very same passionate commitment that compels me to distance myself from the Catholic church today, insofar as it betrays its clear witness to human rights in its teachings and its behavior.

When I got the recent appeal from Catholics United, I ignored it. I did so after deliberation. In moral decisions, one must think things through and weigh choices carefully. I do not break solidarity lightly with groups to whose causes I’m committed. I try to build into my moral decision-making checks and balances, including checks against my own rash judgment or propensity to act out of pique when I’m angry, hurt, off-kilter.

After careful reflection, I decided to ignore this appeal from an organization whose goals I support, for a cause very important to me. After all, only last Friday—a day before the Catholics United ad reached me—I noted in a posting on this blog that Frances Kissling recently called Catholics United to get their statement on the Harry Knox story, and was told they would get back to her.

I noted then that the Catholics United website contained no statement I could find about the attack of the Catholic right on Harry Knox. I’ve just visited it again. If any such statement is there—or has been made—I have not found it.

Ideas have consequences. Groups, including political coalitions, that claim to be acting on moral principle, but which have conspicuous blind spots about some key moral principles (e.g., the claim to human rights of gay persons), undermine my energy for collaborative action. In a world full of needs and causes, I decide to commit myself selectively. I have to do so. I have only so much energy and so much passion.

The energy and passion feeding the election of Barack Obama to the presidency have been extraordinary. The energy level behind the new president remains high.

I predict, however, that it will gradually diminish and slowly wane—and not only among gay citizensif the president continues to listen to his progressive pragmatist advisors to the exclusion of his progressive idealist supporters. In coming months, we may see an increasing selectivity among the president’s supporters about offering support to his platform—particularly as he continues to back-step on his promises to address injustice to gay and lesbian Americans.