Our beloved Thanksgiving holiday produces a healthy surge of pride and patriotism. But true love of country requires that we resist the unhealthy temptation to distort the past for present political purposes—which means discarding the dumb idea that heroes of our history invariably placed principle over pragmatism.
While many manipulative myths serve politically correct notions of distinctly leftist tinge (like the inane notion that Pilgrims meant to thank Indians, rather than God, with their original autumnal feast) this seductive suggestion of unwavering commitment as an American ideal now turns up with alarming regularity on the Tea Party right. Most dangerously, many conservatives embrace the odd and self-destructive idea that authentic political heroes never compromise. One typical caller to my radio show ripped the very thought of any GOP concessions in the ongoing budget battles by citing the right’s revered examples of Lincoln and Reagan. “It’s a good thing that some of these moderates weren’t around in the Civil War to undermine Lincoln or else we’d still have slavery,” he declared. “And I’m glad that Reagan didn’t listen to the moderates or else he couldn’t have won the Cold War or cut taxes.”
Fortunately, many conservatives can personally recall the actual example of Ronald Reagan—whose signature achievements involved sweeping deals with unseemly negotiating partners like Tip O’Neill and Mikhail Gorbachev, and who also gave his enthusiastic approval to a generous (and today unthinkable) amnesty for illegal immigrants. As his loyal conservative son Michael Reagan told me in an on-air interview, “If my Dad were alive today, they’d call him a RINO—a Republican in Name Only.”
Right-wing purists similarly abuse the memory of the first Republican president, Abe Lincoln. While angry conservatives ignorantly insist that Lincoln never budged on his commitment to liberty, the 16th president actually went to enormous lengths to assure worried Southerners that he would never touch their “peculiar institution” in the states where it already existed.
In his first Inaugural Address, the Great Emancipator unequivocally announced: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He went on to cite with approval the 1860 Republican platform that formed the basis for his candidacy and which pledged “inviolate” support for the “right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively.”
Even more striking, Lincoln provided quiet support for a serious effort to avoid war by amending the Constitution of the United States to protect slavery in the states against any and all federal efforts to interfere with “property rights” of slave holders. By March 1st, 1861, Republicans provided the proposed amendment with the necessary two-thirds support in both the House and Senate, and then sent it to the states for ratification as the 13th Amendment. But before that localized legislative process could even begin, the shelling of Fort Sumter began the nation’s bloodiest conflict.
Nevertheless, even long after the commencement of hideous slaughter that ultimately claimed 623,000 American lives, President Lincoln refused to abandon hope of reaching some peaceful agreement with rebellious slaveholders. With his normal clarity and eloquence, the president responded to newspaper editor Horace Greeley 16 months after the war began to describe his patient, nuanced approach to slavery. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery,” the president wrote. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
Four years earlier, as a candidate for Senate in Illinois, this same Lincoln declared repeatedly: “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” Does he count as a hypocrite because he later treated saving the Union as a more important goal than making prompt progress on the preeminent moral issue of his time—if not of all time?
Obviously, Lincoln understood—as his Republican successors must—that pursuit of principle in disregard of consequences doesn’t serve your most cherished ideals, instead it discredits and ultimately destroys them. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked frequently of “keeping your eye on the prize,” and enraged black militants by insisting that patient progress toward real-world goals meant more than self-righteous gestures that did nothing for the cause.
When all GOP presidential candidates insist they would block any deficit deal that involved a mix of spending cuts and tax increases—even if the agreement favored cuts over tax hikes by a ratio of 10-to-1—they dishonor Lincoln’s patently pragmatic legacy.
No major episode in our history demonstrates a real-world advantage to placing unwavering support for fixed positions above pragmatic and gradual results. The most prominent example of heedless devotion to abstract principle involved the Southern “fire-eaters” who confronted Lincoln and preferred secession and war to even the remotest possibility that they might someday compromise their “sacred” rights to hold slaves, and to extend slavery to the territories. The result of their purity on policy involved the utter destruction of the region and the way of life they claimed to honor and had solemnly promised to defend.
Political heroes in our history—including all the Rushmore presidents and other admired chief executives, the greatest leaders of Congress and even titans of the judiciary—emphasized flexibility over fanaticism. To use our current terminology, they flip-flopped regularly, with Jefferson disregarding old principles to purchase Louisiana, Madison rechartering the Bank of the United States after opposing its initial establishment, FDR (and Reagan) vastly increasing deficits after solemnly pledging to balance budgets, Nixon recognizing Red China after three decades of denunciation, Bill Clinton signing welfare reform after two prior vetoes, and so forth. Barack Obama’s inability to negotiate a similar pivot to adjust to new budget realities and a new Republican House hasn’t enhanced his stature, it’s diminished it. One need not embrace the Emersonian idea that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” to recognize the value of adjusting tactics in the interest of strategy, of reconsidering short-term means in order to achieve long-term ends.
In our political history, only the stupid or self-destructive invariably placed principle above pragmatism. When decisions by our leaders involve immediate consequences for hundreds of millions of Americans, disregard for the real-world impact of abstract ideals isn’t admirable; it’s irresponsible. In politics, impractical positions count as inherently … unprincipled.