The fight against a perverse pragmatism

Aaron Schwartz —

In John Maynard Keynes magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, he introduced the two key arguments that he would ultimately be best known for. One, of course, is the support of government intervention in the economy in the form of essentially deficit spending. The other — which essentially formed the basis of his reasoning for deficit spending — is that ultimately, it’s aggregate demand that drives a given economy.

Say what you will about his push for interventionism and, as such, a mixed economy, he is indeed correct on his posit on aggregate demand. I could explain why, but my degree is in finance, not economics. Moreover, I’m not going to necessarily discuss aggregate demand as an economic concept in the rest of this post, but rather how aggregate demand, as a basic concept, can explain some aspects of our political system.

Humans are really fickle beings. We’ve seen this throughout the course of history. And as we progress further in an age where information, above all else, is humanity’s greatest commodity and knowledge is the most valuable piece of human capital, our fickleness is illuminated.

Depending on how we choose to be informed and how we opt to deploy our knowledge, we can often have competing views of the world we exist in, let alone our own roles in existing in it. Sometimes, with too much glee, we’re willing to interfere in others’ self-actualization, especially when it doesn’t come within alignment of our own worldview — even if they’re complete fucking strangers. While there some obvious instances where intervention and defense is necessary (you know, against malevolence); other times, we will be just fine with subjugating (and even sabotaging) the existence of someone else just to boost our own.

But that might be too deep and a little bit too much of a digression. Maybe I should stick to the topic.

For a while, many have tried wrapping their heads around Donald Trump’s ascension to power. The collegial office of the presidency has descended into an animal house of lies, corruption, childishness, and pettiness. Indeed, the office is a joke now. And surprisingly, there are a slew of Americans that have a renewed appreciation of the office of years past — not necessarily agreeing with the policies of previous administrations, but at least acknowledging that previous Presidents were put the country before themselves; unlike the incumbent, who insists on loyalty and submission — not from just political subordinates, but from the constituency at large.

But focusing mostly on Trump is dangerous; there’s something else at play here that liberals, progressives, centrists, and even some conservatives have been in denial of for years and are slowly coming around to it — there’s was always a demand for this kind of presidency.

Just like a demand for a car is common, but not necessarily uniform, the demand for this kind of leadership is the same. Voters often demand a leader that speaks to them and listens to them; but most importantly, they seek leaders that will legitimize the voter’s worldview. The voting mindset is not that much different than the consumer mindset — motivations aside, both mindsets force the person to choose the path of least resistance.

Trump, ever the salesman, only simply sold what his voters were looking for — a charismatic leader that could be a conduit for their worldview, from taxes, to racism, to making liberals cry. It wasn’t economic issues (they favored Clinton); this was about getting the upper hand in a cultural war they believed they were losing. The concerns about terrorism and illegal immigration? Cultural above all else. Anti-liberalism? Culture. Distrust in “liberal elites”? Cultural. The Obama era moved many Americans forward — most willfully, others kicking, bitching, and screaming . It was the ones that were kicking, bitching, and screaming that cast their votes for Trump.

Where most talking heads still focus on partisanship and ideology, only a few are beginning to recognize that this was ultimately about sociopolitical tribalism. This tribe has their chief; and they’ll defend this chief regardless — no matter how nonsensical the whataboutisms are and how susceptible they may be to blatant gaslighting. Conservatism — and right-wing politics at large — is mostly a game of submission to a perceived order.

However, the most striking thing is how little of Trump’s behavior, ineptitude, and bigotry is a deal breaker for his voters. For example, I do work for what it is relatively socially progressive organization. But my immediate circle of clientele in this organization are fairly conservative in their politics — every last one of them identify as Republicans and they all voted for Trump. And who knows, they may be on board with his bullshit — but they are at the least willing to tolerate his bullshit if the individual in office at least delivers on policies that they find either beneficial to their livelihood or their views.

In other words, many of these individuals embraced a perverse pragmatism. Consider former congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) in the lead up to the 2016 Election. Immediately after the Access Hollywood tape, Chaffetz openly withdrew his support for Trump; he reversed course a few days later, saying that a Clinton presidency would be an even worse outcome. In other words, he too, despite his convictions as a Mormon, would be willing to accept the grand bargain of having a crass individual at the head of state and government so as long as preferred his presidency crafts a pathway to the policies in which he wish to see come to fruition.

I suspect that, more than anything, this is the conclusion that the late deciding voters —most of whom broke for Trump — reached after the flare up of Clinton’s email controversy. On the other hand, part of me believes that they were going to come around to Trump regardless. After all, the story of the 2016 election was not necessarily who voted — but who ended up not voting, whether it was by choice or as a result of various laws that voting rights activists consider to be impeding.

In any event, this is where I believe the real fight is — not necessarily trying to win over voters that fell under the spell of Trump, if you will — but against that perverse pragmatism that helped him get elected. Politics is a human enterprise, despite all of the rhetoric and the caricatures we create for political opponents, and ultimately, an exhibition of feelings and bargains.

Most Democrats recognize this reality. The other day, I saw response by a Twitter user who vote for a third party and reasoned that both parties were equally flawed and didn’t deserve his vote. I replied by saying that while I understood his position, I still wanted him to consider something. Keep in mind, this was someone that was clearly leaning on the left side of the political spectrum:

(He did respond, in which you can read here).

There is a corollary to that (which I didn’t add in that exchange on Twitter): would you rather be pragmatic and vote for person that you agree with 60%, 70%, or 80% of the time win or would opt to be petulant, throw your vote away, and let the person that you disagree with 80%, 90%, perhaps 100% of the time, win? We don’t have a Westminster-style political system; we have a two-party system that has allowed to fester thanks to the rigidly tribal nature of American politics. (Yes, voters deserve just as much of the blame).

But with Republicans embracing this perverse pragmatism where ineptitude, scandal, bigotry, xenophobia, and racism aren’t deal breakers; where the party has crystallized its support behind one charismatic demagogue because he is the conduit for the recent victories in this current sociopolitical and cultural war; where does the opposition go from here?

Back to what the Democratic Party was previously — a big tent party that valued good government and good policy above all else. And I say this even though the party has leaders that have the propensity of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The left, the center, and the reasonable right are all going to have to embrace our own pragmatism if we’re going to have any chance to save this republic from itself. It starts in 2018, then in 2020, then in the years ahead. I hope that the past three years serve as a lesson that we’re in the midst of a war of ideas, a war of reason, and a war of worldviews and there has to be a winner.




Somewhere between a classical liberal and a modern liberal.

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Somewhere between a classical liberal and a modern liberal.

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