Is Pragmatism Overrated?

Not challenging the new president will do him and the nation no good.

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We all know by now that Barack Obama fancies himself a modern Abe Lincoln. Few people begrudge the national pride Lincoln’s memory evokes, so Obama can be forgiven for his repetition of the comparison—the grand Springfield, Ill. campaign launch; the team of rivals; the Lincoln inaugural Bible. But as we prepare to swear in our 44th president, at least one memory of the Lincoln era has been entirely unwelcome: the vocal, progressive dissent that drove the Great Emancipator to earn his name.

Lincoln’s political stance was as neutral on slavery as it was steadfast on restoring the national union. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave,” he wrote in 1862, “I would do it.” As other commentators have pointed out, that uncomfortable historical reality should remind us that the political pragmatism in which Obama is now draped has its limits; moderation is too easily confused with acceptance of deep injustices.

There is, however, an additional lesson to be learned from Lincoln’s reluctance to end slavery: that meaningful dissent is essential for democratic change, no matter who is president. From the Civil War’s start, abolitionist rabble-rousers clamored for more lasting goals than mere preservation of the Union. Frederick Douglass incessantly cajoled Lincoln, whom he called “a brave man trying against great odds to do right.” He demanded Lincoln to declare that emancipation was an explicit aim of war. He saw no conflict between the abolitionists’ clear alliance with the president and their need to demand more of Lincoln.

Sadly, there’s little appreciation for Douglass’ brand of political tough love today.

Pundits rolled out a political trope about the nutty left and its threat to Obama’s success almost as soon as he was elected. Progressives concerned about the heterodox thinking of Obama’s economic team are said to be rushing to judgment. Those of us who question the hawkish perspective of Hillary Clinton as much today as we did during the primary are suddenly unreasonable. After choosing Rick Warren—a man who unabashedly equates relationships like mine with incest and pedophilia—to deliver the inaugural invocation, Obama argued that he sought to “create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable.” The deep, personal insult gay couples feel is presumably just tired, old, culture-war politics.

Last month, Obama campaign strategist Steve Hildebrand went so far as to publish a chiding message to progressives who dared object to the president-elect’s Cabinet choices. “This is not a time for the left wing of our party to draw conclusions about the Cabinet and White House appointments that President-elect Obama is making,” Hildebrand lectured, in full-throated Fox News indignation. He offered no indication of when, exactly, would be a more appropriate time for progressives to become involved in the political process.

Never mind that the largest problems facing the nation and the president-elect today could have been avoided if progressives had not been similarly dismissed as unreasonable kooks during both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Progressive ideas about financial-industry deregulation, unrestrained “free trade,” climate change and, of course, Iraq were once considered rash but have all been proven correct.

Moreover, Obama’s own rejection of progressive ideas in the name of pragmatism has already served him, and the nation, poorly. Many liberal economists have long argued that the fastest way to end the mortgage crisis is to lift the bizarre rule that bars bankruptcy judges from reviewing home loans. But during the Wall Street bailout fiasco last summer, then-candidate Obama used his bully pulpit to keep that change out of the bill. He advocated instead for a narrow—more politically pragmatic—bill. That worked out well.

But whether Obama and political pundits want to hear from progressives is beside the point. History proves that those of us who want to see the purported mainstream broadened cannot afford to sit out the Obama revolution. And that’s particularly true for black folks.

Each of black America’s great presidential allies faced reform movements that refused to accept empty promises and pragmatic kiss-offs, even from friends. A. Philip Randolph and his black labor movement rode FDR until he barred bias in war-contracting jobs. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement drove first John Kennedy and then Lyndon B. Johnson to distraction with unrelenting demands for more, faster change. In doing so, they helped create the political space for Johnson’s massive civil-rights legislation.

It could be that Obama gets this, too. Perhaps he believes the clamor for progressive government must come from outside of the White House; maybe he’s cloaking himself in centrist robes to create cover for bold reforms. After all, many of the stimulus-plan details he’s floated so far are nothing short of precedent shattering. I certainly hope that’s the case.

But Hillary Clinton had this much right during her primary bid: Hope’s not enough to beat back decades of right-wing entrenchment. We’re all going to need to think less about Lincoln and more about Douglass, who put it this way, when rejecting Lincoln’s insistence that unity trumps justice, even as a practical matter: “We have pursued that middle path. It is compromise, and by it we have reached the Civil War with all its horrid consequences. The question is shall we start anew with the same old path?”

Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.