31 July 2009

A Return To Pragmatism

I was finishing up Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson, when the last chapter brought up some points about a "national dichotomy that has existed" since our nation's earliest days. That is, a divide in American character; that of pragmatism versus romanticism.

At different times in American history, one side of our character is dominant over the other.
  • Religious tolerance versus evangelical faith.
  • Social mobility versus an established elite.
  • Middle-class virtues versus ethereal noble aspirations.
  • Political compromise versus bitter feuding.
  • Rationality versus romanticism,
  • Reason and intellect versus feeling, deep emotion, and subjective sensibility.
  • Tolerance and rationality versus heroic and mystical.
  • Thrift, frugality, and hard work versus gratification, passion and imagination.
  • Methodical versus transcendental.
  • Admiration for the middle class versus hatred of the bourgeoisie.
  • Industry versus idleness.
  • Learned and wise versus inspired.
At different times, our society has valued one set of values over the other. Early in American history, there was a focus on romanticism; an example being the Great Awakening. By the time of the Revolution, society had shifted to Enlightenment values, a demonstration of pragmatism. Ben Franklin is an excellent example of pragmatic values. In the early 19th century, society shifted back to romanticism, demonstrated by the Reform Movement and Thoreau and Emerson.

And so it went back and forth.

During the 1930s through the 1950s, as a result of the Great Depression, American society became focused on the pragmatic. This is reflected in the values as demonstrated in the approach of politics and business of the period, but also in the literature, the popular culture, and the arts of the period.

Starting slowly in the 1950s, and growing in the 1960s, American society shifted once again to romanticism. The emphasis shifted from reason to feeling. (Do what feels good. Or even, do what feels right, the focus being on feelings.) This not only explains popular culture, but the rise of the evangelical movement as well as New Age-ism, is a clear demonstration of romanticism.

In politics, as well as the media, the consensus of shared goals and shared values broke down. Compromise became a dirty word, and emotion-based politics became the rule. Our politics went from genial compromising to vicious sniping. Society looked down on the middle class and working people. The idle, angry student protester was valued more than the quiet family oriented businessman. Emotion became the order of the day.

Now, though, another shift in American society is upon us. Perhaps over the next generation, our society, and therefore our politics, will become more pragmatic. I see some signs that this shift is occurring. For example, the weakening of evangelicals as a political force in the last election. The experience of the young adults will be that of fighting wars and fighting a recession, both experiences that produce an emphasis on practical results.

What is pragmatism? It holds that the truth of any proposition, whether it be scientific, or moral , or social, is based on how well it correlates with experimental results and produces a practical outcome.

It is my hope not only that our society will adjust, but that the Modern Whigs will be a part of this shift to a more pragmatic politics. A focus on the politics of results, of compromise, of reason. Policies being favored because they work, and bring the most benefit to our society.

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