Friday, December 19, 2003

Rights & Reason: Spurrier, Pragmatism & Democracy

Although the presidential election is starting to awaken nationally, here in Washington much of the talk is centered around Redskins head coach Steve Spurrier and whether he’ll be back for a third season in 2004. Spurrier was an enormously successful collegiate coach at Florida, but has posted a mediocre 12-18 record to date in D.C. The key to Spurrier’s Florida success—pass first, pass often—has been his Achilles heel in Washington, where offenses and defenses are substantially more complex. Spurrier also can’t overwhelm opponents with talent in the NFL as he could in the Southeastern Conference.

I bring all this up because in recent weeks I’ve begun to notice a philosophical similarity between Spurrier and President Bush. Both men are agenda-driven. That is to say, both renounce comprehension of complex systems in favor of advocating a limited agenda. Spurrier came to the Redskins to see if his passing attack would work in the NFL; he was uninterested in the details—or even the organizational philosophy—of managing an NFL franchise. Similarly, President Bush came to office with a checklist of items—tax cuts, prescription drug benefits, “changing the tone” in Washington—but no genuine philosophy of government or interest in the details of daily governance.

Now, Bush’s supporters will argue he does have a philosophy: “compassionate conservatism”. I’ve expended a great deal of thought trying to figure out what that phrase means, but I’ve drawn nothing but blanks. Compassionate conservatism is a slogan, not an ideology. At best, it’s an approximation of a philosophy. It implies Bush believes in limited government, except when doing so is deemed uncompassionate. How we define compassionate is anyone’s guess. It has something to do with religion, but not to the point where it offends the nonreligious or people who hold different values from us. The President does recognize the need to identify and destroy evil, but so far he’s limited that to Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and members of Congress who voted against the Medicare bill. This is hardly the work of a great moralist.

Bush succeeded as governor of Texas largely because the job did not require ideology, complex thinking, or for that matter opposable thumbs. The Texas legislature meets for a limited biennial session, while executive power is diffused among hundreds of boards and agencies. A governor can survive, indeed thrive, by promoting a limited agenda. Much like Spurrier at Florida, Bush ran up an impressive record by exploiting the natural advantages of his position’s limited demands. When both men went to the next level, however, their limitations caught up with them.

This leads me to Howard Dean, the Democratic presidential nominee (pending the outcome of the actual primaries). The other day John Rosenberg, a blogger specializing in diversity issues, cited an interview Dean gave in the summer on the subject of ideology and politics:
Dean describes himself as an anti-ideological pragmatist. "I'm not an ideologue," he said in an interview with In These Times. "I think the great problem with this president is that his is an ideological administration. Facts don't matter to them. I'm a complete pragmatist. I really believe that people who have ideologies that can't be bent and are insensitive to the facts can't govern."
Dean correctly describes himself as a pragmatist. He errs, however, in calling Bush an ideologue. This shows Dean doesn’t understand the concept of ideology or its implications. As noted above, Bush is driven by a limited, concrete agenda. Any idea or concept not on that agenda is irrelevant to him, just as defensive backs are irrelevant to Spurrier. This is why Bush signed campaign finance reform, imposed steel tariffs, and allows his antitrust enforcers to run amok. They’re not part of his agenda, so he need not be concerned with them. That is not the work of an ideologue.

Dean is a pragmatist, which means he rejects ideology for being ideology. He considers any moral absolute an abomination. (This must be why libertarians love him.) A pragmatist believes only in momentary whims, not universal abstractions. Thus, when Dean emphasizes the primacy of “facts,” he refers to assessing subjective desires, not identifying objective reality. For Dean, truth comes through the passion of his supporters. His facts are verified by the anger of the crowd: They oppose the war in Iraq, so the war had no justification; people are anxious about the economy, so Bush’s economic policies have failed. Ultimately, Dean seeks consensus for the sake of consensus, regardless of its objective truth and long-term implications.

George Bush too is a pragmatist, but he makes exceptions for things like tax cuts and the war. On his agenda items, he is inflexible. This makes him, I suppose, an “unreasonable pragmatist,” which is really shifting a paradigm without a clutch. Yet Dean insists that Bush is an ideologue. He does this because it sets up the presidential race as a clash between ideology and pragmatism; post-New Deal history suggests Americans will vote pragmatism. For his part, Bush’s supporters (especially among neoconservatives) also support this setup, because they believe Americans are ready for ideology again. The only problem is, the ideology they’re backing isn’t Objectivism or rationalism, but a leftism-conservatism hybrid that goes well beyond compassionate conservatism. I’m not sure what the final philosophical product will look like, but I suspect it will involve brown shirts and public loyalty proclamations.

But that’s just a small core of the Bush supporters. The president himself remains a big dumb guy without an ideology, which brings me back to Steve Spurrier. Spurrier will return next year if (a) the Redskins conclude he can put them on the path to the Super Bowl; or (b) the Redskins can’t find a better coach. Option (a) is probably not the way to go, and option (b) still needs to be explored. When it comes to the presidency, we know Bush won’t get us to the ideological Super Bowl—that is, he’ll never advocate a political philosophy that integrates reason, individualism, and capitalism—so the question becomes whether there’s a better president out there. Howard Dean’s continued existence suggests there isn’t. This means we’re faced with keeping a mediocre president who will, metaphorically speaking, lead us to back-to-back 7-9 seasons if nobody's injured. Hey, at least we’re not the Arizona Cardinals.

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