— This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 5 November 2014, was last revised on 28 November 2014. © Govinthenews Vol. 5:11(1).
In a wave election that — in many if not most locales throughout the U.S. — exceeded even the most optimistic expectations of America’s conservative base for midterm voter turnout, Republicans have wrested control of the Senate from the Democrats and added to their numbers in the House of Representatives. The stakes for the future of this nation have not been higher.
Now America’s leaders, together with the American people as a whole, face the Question of the Century: Where does America go from here? In times past the answer would be simple, given the strong gains made by Republicans and heavy losses sustained by Democrats. This time, however, the answer isn’t quite so clear.
The status quo seems out of the question. The Democratic Party agenda, which — since the days of LBJ — has focused American politics on what conservatives consider the utopian goal of equality of ownership and wealth for all, appears off the table, at least for the moment. Conservatives argue it should be off the table forever but agree that it’s not going to happen as long as Democrats persist in selling the masses a bill of goods — in the form of a utopian, everything for nothing kind of equality — to get elected and re-elected. Utopian equality, besides being practically unreachable, would be unsustainable if ever achieved. That is why, despite volumes of essays by such eminent social scientists as Mortimer J. Adler that extol its glories in reams of flowery prose, a lasting form of utopian equality has never been achieved in the history of man.
Its more logical analog, pragmatic equality, better known as equality of opportunity, is both reachable and sustainable for anyone willing to do the things it requires of them. Things like boot leather, elbow grease, sweat, and thrift. Nobody who does those things is left out, as the American experience testifies, though, as in everything human, imperfections in the process remain and always will. Which is one way of saying that we can always do better, as individuals and as a nation. Perfecting America’s grip on pragmatic equality is a process, one that never ends. It began in a primitive form when this nation was first formed, in the 18th Century. The work of fine-tuning it continues today, albeit in a stuttering fashion that has, of late, been dealt setbacks by having to compete head-to-head with its utopian cousin.
In the short term, such head-to-head bouts usually benefit the concept with greatest gut, i.e., emotional, appeal. The hard cold truth, though a sure winner in the long term, has a hard time competing with unsubstantiated promises. Thus it isn’t surprising that utopian equality bested its pragmatic cousin for the past 49 years. But utopian ideals always fail the test of reality. And now, thanks to the failure of the White House to perfect any of the utopian projects our president and his colleagues in the U.S. Congress sought to bring to fruition, all America has strong evidence that the utopian dreams of the Great Society and the War on Poverty are without merit. The president’s signature achievement, the so-called Affordable Care Act (ACA), provides the most recent clues. Conservatives believe that, in the coming days and certainly during the last two years of this Administration, the continued failure of the ACA to meet even its goals will become as clear to all as it has been to America’s realists from the very beginning.
By comparison, despite its imperfections, pragmatic equality marches on without breaking stride and continues to work. America, imperfect as it was, has been, and always will be, is the world’s only living proof that pragmatic equality, within a pluralistic society made up of diverse races, religions, and cultures, can be achieved and sustained. It has worked in America for 238 years. Yes, with all its warts and blemishes. We started off with slavery as one of our realities, yet we managed to grow out of that. True, we didn’t move past the worst parts of the slavery issue easily, quickly, or perfectly. Furthermore, some remnants of that blot still persist in the fabric of our nation, and in the hearts and souls of our citizenry. But we’re improving, and day by day those remnants are being rooted out. It is characteristic for pragmatic equality to keep on perfecting itself, slowly but surely. That’s the secret behind its success. It is unstoppable, given just a little room to grow in.
Improving on opportunities for all is something every American should be able to get behind. Today, Republicans and a large number of Democrats and Independents are eagerly working on new ways to make America’s supreme crowning glory, equality of opportunity, even more perfect.
Others, however, cling to dreamy visions of Johnson’s Great Society. Who can blame them? Lyndon B. Johnson promised America’s downtrodden the creation of what amounted to a genuine “Heaven-On-Earth.” According to LBJ’s Great Society, all Americans would soon be able to live in and own high-dollar homes, expensive cars, and — you name it — if it was worth having, everybody could have it. No questions asked. No credit checks. No investment required. It would be given to all.
No other method of improving the condition of life for America’s poor could possibly compete with such a program. Yet, all honest thinkers are forced to admit, today, that no conceivable program, offering such benefits, could ever succeed.
Of course, America’s poor bought into that vision. No matter how irrational it may have been on its face, it was being touted as achievable by the most powerful human in the world, the President of the United States, leader of the richest nation on earth. If you cannot believe him, who can you believe?
Today, nearly 50 years later, the Great Society still has not been achieved, despite the fact that the U.S. Government has poured trillions of taxpayer dollars into the project. Conservatives point to this as proof that LBJ was wrong, and the realistic naysayers were right: it simply can’t be done. Others, though, point to efforts by a host of conservatives whose actions ham-strung the government’s creation and administration of the Great Society’s infrastructure. If the government’s hands had not been tied, the dreamers insist, LBJ’s Great Society would be in full swing today.
Great dreams die hard. Reality and historical proof cannot faze true dreamers. The doses of reality that come their way are bitter pills that cannot be swallowed. America’s poor do with them what we should expect them to do: they spit them out.
That reaction should not be a big surprise to anybody. Still many conservatives fail to understand it. Here’s a newsflash: we all must learn, not only to understand it, but how to deal with such reactions. If we fail in either of those fields, we do so at great peril.
America’s realists must learn to recognize the need to comprehend and sympathize with the expectations of America’s poor and act accordingly. Sympathize, not compromise. It isn’t necessary to dumb down the ideals of pragmatic equality in order to recognize how the false promises of utopian equality have shaped the expectations of generations of Americans. It is crucial, however, for America’s realists to behave with respect and gentility when interacting with those who tend not to be as realistic as they are. Republicans must realize that their new-found powers, if not wielded with great care and sensitivity, will soon be taken from them again. If that happens, it will be their own fault.
The impossible dreams of the mid-1960’s are still alive, as seemingly reasonable, achievable goals, in the minds of a large fraction of America’s citizens. Those dreams will lead the American electorate to rise up, probably as early as the 2016 presidential elections, and follow the next charismatic dreamer that comes along. That’s practically guaranteed unless America’s conservative voice of reason finds a way to penetrate the wall of fantasy that LBJ and his throng of followers erected on a foundation of utopian promises.
Our president, in his first press conference after the mid-term election, suggested that the two-thirds of American voters who did not come to the polls were mostly those who, like him, continue to believe in the achievability of LBJ’s Great Society. He’s probably right. If so, wisdom requires the realists among us to factor that into their strategic thinking, and in so doing to moderate their gratitude for Tuesday’s results with a deep appreciation for the challenges those results represent.
Yes, conservatives can be thankful that, despite evidence that realism may not be the average American’s cup of tea, reality isn’t yet dead. The events of 4 November 2014 made that clear. America appears to be poised on a springboard pointed toward a new reality in American society and American politics. With luck, the gridlock of the past six years should now be passé. America has the outward look of a nation ready, willing, and able to make great strides forward.
But in what direction? Herein lies the challenge facing every realist in America today.
Realism may be knocking at every American’s door. Yet, as the president’s most recent assertions indicate, many have no incentive to invite it in. And even for those who crack the door a little, each will interpret the realities they receive in different ways. How they interpret those realities will depend, for one thing, on how much reality they can handle at the moment.
Individual limits on that vary, but the temporal element is crucial. Given time, reality has a way of sinking in, even for those who persist in denying it. Those in denial need help. Realists can supply that help, partly by biding their time and giving those in denial room in which to come to their senses. Or, by acting like bulls in a china shop, America’s conservative realists can cause those in denial to become recalcitrant, and delay the inevitable for years or even decades.
It has been said for years that the only way out of the blind alley that LBJ’s Great Society and the War on Poverty led us down, is for America to hit the brick wall we’re approaching head-on. If that has to happen, the price we will pay individually and as a nation, and that the rest of the world will pay as well, will be enormous, far beyond the already heavy price we’ve paid thus far.
The 2014 mid-term election offers a faint glimmer of hope that we can do better than that. If realism isn’t dead, and America’s voters are ready to give it another go, the two-thirds who didn’t vote in the November 4 election may also be ready for real change, change that has at least some hope of success. America’s conservatives know what needs to be done to bring that change about, but they cannot do it without the cooperation of America’s liberals and America’s poor.
Getting that cooperation won’t be easy, but cooperative effort is essential to its success. Anyone who thinks the conservative values espoused by the Republican Party can stand on their own without being explained in terms that the average layperson on the street can understand is hopelessly naive. Just as important, though, is setting the stage so that those words will reach an attentive audience. If the average layperson on the street won’t listen, even the most skillful orator will be wasting their time.
The gulf between “can understand” and “will understand” is wider than the Grand Canyon when the audience isn’t interested. But, maybe the audience is more interested right now than they’ve ever been in recent history. America stands today on the brink of a new reality, and chances are good that many of the two-thirds who didn’t vote in the 2014 mid-term elections are ready to pay attention to, and even swallow, a greater dose of reality than they’ve been willing to handle for a long, long time.
This may just be the opportunity of a lifetime for conservatives to spread the message of realistic, conservative values. If so, America must not squander it. Conservatives should make reality something to be prized, even cherished. Nothing else may be more important today than that… Over time, as more and more Americans become better at learning the lessons reality teaches, a consensus will develop to guide us, tenuously, along the path to the future. But to what kind of future? One rife with unrealistic expectations and promises that cannot be kept? Or one with realism as its masthead, charted with care, pointed toward a set of goals that are imminently achievable, in a positive, stair-step progression forward.
When the principles that made America strong at the beginning, and that have kept America strong throughout its history, are given the respect they deserve, everyone’s status in life improves. Conservatives must find ways to make those principles work for everybody. Rejecting truth won’t work, but pushing the truth on those who are not prepared — or who are not yet willing or able — to accept it won’t work either. Nearsighted efforts to force truth and reality on a public that isn’t capable of receiving it will produce disastrous results that could last for decades. Realists must become socially and politically hyperopic, as individuals, as families, as communities, states, political parties, and as a nation.
How can that be done? To begin with, conservatives must deliberate on everything they do. Before taking even a single step forward, they must first pause and ponder what to do next. Something special must influence the decision-making process from here forward in a way that is accepted by and that resonates with the American people. Some think that special something is necessarily defined in politico-legal terms, like sealing the border or honoring and enforcing constitutional law. True, those and a whole list of other political and legal priorities matter a lot, but before tackling them, something much more basic must be done to characterize everything we say and do.
That special something, that is so basic and so critical, has been missing in American politics for much too long. It can be described in a single word- civility. Being polite and reasonable. Exhibiting respectable behavior, even toward those with which strong disagreements exist. Personifying civilized conduct. Courtesy, the most contagious form of civility known to man. Politeness, the passive form of courtesy, which is subtly contagious as well.
What has caused the meanings behind those words to become lost on so many of America’s elected officials and representatives? That’s an interesting study in itself, one from which all could benefit if they took the time. Now is the time to concentrate on the concepts behind those words, and ask why, so often today, the elected representatives of the American people behave contrary to them.
Historically conservatives, in their behavior toward progressives, have tended to be more respectful and polite. Yet today, in reacting to the behavior of their liberal fellows in government, conservatives who ought to know better often behave in an uncivilized way. They must wake up to the fact that good government begins with respect and civility. If those on the left cannot behave that way, that’s their problem, but it must not influence the way conservatives behave.
Somebody must be be the adults in the room. It would be good if all would toe that line, but conservatives have no control over anyone but themselves. It is up to them to behave as adults. And as adults they must politely and courteously educate those less fortunate than themselves, patiently explaining why pragmatic equality is the only kind of equality that works.
It’s either that or the sudden stop at the rock-hard bottom of the well. America may finally be ready to hear what conservative realists have to say. Many dreamers have come to realize that they’ve been deceived by false promises and hopes that cannot be met, and they’re ready to face reality head-on. For conservatives the prospects have never been brighter, but they must present reality to those ready to face it with sensitivity and patience.
If they cannot do that, the future for America is an appointment with another kind of head-on collision, one that can be avoided…
- Adler, Mortimer J. 1991. Haves Without Have-Nots. Macmillan Publishing Company.
- Mill, John Stuart. 1859. On Liberty.
- Obama, Barack. 6 November 2014. Remarks by the President in a Press Conference. The White House.
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