Different Strokes

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Dissent Magazine has pulled together an interesting symposium on intellectuals and the American left. EJ Dionne’s contribution concludes by touching on my favorite themes from Max Weber:

As a general proposition, democratic politics demands an ethic of responsibility. Persuasion is a long process, reform is always achieved in steps, compromise is inevitable, and moving forward is better than moving backward—even if the number of steps taken at any given moment can be limited by circumstances. A single election, a lone health care reform bill (even a big one), this civil rights bill, that labor law reform: all are steps down a road. They are not a destination.

But some critics will hold out and say they are not satisfied. They will call power to account even when those in power have some sympathy for their goals. They will lay out the requirements for a future better than the present even during times of progress—perhaps especially during times of progress.

Both kinds of critics are necessary. Both can, if they keep Weber’s admonitions in mind, contribute to democratic progress. Lincoln needed the abolitionists and the proddings of Frederick Douglass; Franklin Roosevelt needed the labor movement; John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson needed the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Something I think it’s sometimes difficult for “sensible liberal” pragmatists of my own ilk to keep in mind is that it’s a good thing for the cause of sensible meliorationist liberal pragmatism to see some feisty folks with a more radical vision gaining some traction in the public discourse. Being sensible and pragmatic only works when there’s some people out there anchoring the debate and giving you the opportunity to be the sensible pragmatist rather than the wild-eyed radical.

By the same token, people hoping for big change need to recognize that the change you get is always more marginal than the change you were hoping for. There’s never—not in 1933, not in 1965, and not ever—some moment of total where the forces of the status quo admit defeat and the utopia comes rushing in. Any day you’re moving forward is a day that something important is being accomplished.