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The Art of the Possible

November 27, 2020 (811 words)

Politics, as we know, is not about identifying the right thing to do, which is a basic concept parents impart to their young children. Instead it’s about recognizing what you can actually get done. This pragmatic approach has defined the career of President-elect Biden, a long-time “institutionalist” who has always believed in making deals with the other side.

So early November reports of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren being tapped for an important role in the new Biden administration were pre-mature, to say the least. Both these veteran Senators have radically different political DNA than does our incoming President, since both are well known as advocating for large scale change in some of our big institutions.

Mr. Biden may have been forced to tack leftward during the Democrat primary by his more progressive opponents. With the election finally in the bag he is once again sounding a soothing, can’t-go-wrong message of wanting to heal the nation and restore the heart of America, etc. The particulars, as always, are open to discussion.

And the obstacles are formidable. With Republicans still holding a majority in the Senate, a Sanders or Warren appointment would have trouble gaining approval. No sense expending precious political capital on a contentious confirmation hearing right out of the gate.

In addition to the Republicans’ innate obstructionism there is another obvious reason Mr. Biden is steering clear of picking a strident ideologue for a key cabinet post. A notable portion of the electorate – some 70 million strong – is already convinced the country has just fallen into the hands of godless Socialists intent on destroying our cherished way of life.

Many of the folks who hold this view – that we’ve taken a dire turn for the worst, with a Democrat having been elected President – are good people who are using a Cliff Notes version of history as a guide. One might even call it a comic book version of history.

They are often earnest believers who mistakenly infer a Christian motivation to “conservative” politics in general, and to the idea of “free market economics” in particular. This, by the way, is a relatively recent development, having sprung up in the last half century.

How do we legislate for the common good in such an environment? Well, we can all keep doing the very same things we are currently doing, and hope for the best. Idealistic liberals can keep by-passing their most eloquent and principled spokespeople in the interests of pragmatism. And conscientious conservatives can keep indulging their taste for fairy tales, with their talk of “markets that are free but operate with restraint.”

(Editor’s Note: A free market that operates with restraint is a contradiction in terms.)

The way market capitalism has been allowed to flourish outside a moral framework – that is, apart from any restraint – has achieved the desired result. Fortunes have been made. Along the way many have been brought out of poverty, and society’s standard of living has undeniably improved.

But the rising tide has not been enough to lift all boats. In fact, the newly-minted winners are still vastly outnumbered by a sea of ship-wrecked losers.

Trying to confront this inequity trips up my dear friends the conservatives, and reveals their willingness to let the clever and advantaged run roughshod over the rank and file, under the noble-sounding guise of economic freedom

It seems these friends of mine have adopted certain characteristics long associated with the Protestant Reformation and its sequel, the Enlightenment. Such as celebrating rugged individualism, and playing by one’s own rules. The irony is conservatives whose mission in life is to “preserve tradition” are today caught up in preserving the wrong one.

The lack of historical context is what prompts any discussion of an economic recalibration to be dismissed by conservatives as “socialist.” It certainly doesn’t help that the liberals suggesting the reset are unable or unwilling to describe the proposed restoration for what it truly is – a long overdue attempt to bring Gospel precepts to bear on an economic system (capitalism) and a way of life (the American Experiment in pluralism) that wears its disdain for the old order like a badge of honor.

I happen to agree with people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who advocate for large scale change in some of our big institutions. If only our hallowed secular principle insisting on the separation of Church and state was not standing in the way, preventing us from adopting effective solutions to our most pressing social problems.

Until then we will no doubt continue to entertain ourselves by engaging in the same old familiar (and sophomoric) debate, pitting the free market against big government. This easy dance keeps us from an authentic encounter with the pervasive injustice we all know in our heart of hearts has yet to be properly addressed.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
November 27, 2020

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