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This essay elaborates on one earlier this month following the mass shooting at an Oregon community college. In that essay I stated that one of our main problems was that “our political leaders, especially the Republicans, are not pragmatic enough to work for the common good.” That essay also quoted Pope Francis’s words that the “pursuit of the common good . . . is the chief aim of all politics,” and “a good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.”

Republican Obstructionism

Gun Control, Global Warming, and Gridlock: Obama’s Pragmatism Versus Republican Obstructionism—Walter Moss

The argument in the present essay is that working toward the common good is the main job of Congress, and doing so requires the openness and pragmatism mentioned by the pope. Further, I maintain that President Obama in dealing with major problems in our country—such as how to reduce mass shootings or prevent the destructive effects of climate change—has demonstrated these qualities. He has been pragmatic. Congressional Republicans have not. They have been obstructionists, that is guilty of “deliberate interference with the progress or business . . . of a legislative body.”

Republican obstructionism has increased dramatically as a result of the rise of the Tea Party role within it during the last decade.

As NBC reported in late December 2014, “the combined productivity of the 112th and 113th [Congresses]—in which Republicans controlled the House and Democrats the Senate”—was “the lowest of any back-to-back Congresses on record.” The fact that Republicans also became the Senate’s majority party this year in the 114th Congress has not increased that body’s ability to work productively. As one source recently foresaw the continuing outlook, “Congressional dysfunction with no end in sight.”

Republican obstructionism has increased dramatically as a result of the rise of the Tea Party role within it during the last decade. That party’s web site lists “15 Non-negotiable Core Beliefs,” which include “Gun ownership is sacred”; “Government must be downsized”; and “Reducing business income taxes is mandatory.” A Pew Research Center survey in late 2014 indicated that only 9 percent of Tea Party Republicans believed that human-caused global warming was occurring—contrasted with some 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists who hold this belief. When one looks at such beliefs in regard to gun ownership and global warming is it any wonder that the rise of the Tea Party has led to obstructionism and Congressional dysfunction in dealing with such issues?

In 2011 former Indiana Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton identified a difference in the role of the federal government as one of the major causes of Congress’s failure to operate effectively. But he also stated that “when ideology trumps pragmatism, we find ourselves incapable of moving.” And he added that “most Americans don’t worry a lot about whether a given policy is ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ They worry about whether or not it works. And so as any given issue gets debated, the ideologues take stands that hew to their beliefs and only reluctantly yield on their views, while most voters want to see things get resolved in a manner that responds to the needs of the country.”

As president-elect in December 2008, Obama sounded pragmatic when he told U.S. governors, “We are not going to be hampered by ideology in trying to get this country back on track. We want to figure out what works.” In his convincing examination of the sources of Obama’s ideas, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (2011), Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg emphasizes that “the philosophy of pragmatism that originated over a century ago in the writings of William James and John Dewey . . . has provided a sturdy base for Obama's sensibility.” This type of pragmatism “challenges the claims of absolutists—whether their dogmas are rooted in science or religion—and instead embraces uncertainty, provisionally, and the continuous testing of hypotheses through experimentation,” in order to see what works.

The pragmatism of James and Dewey is itself sometimes considered an ideology, but the way I am referring to it here does not concern itself with any rigid adherence to the detailed philosophical ideas of the two thinkers, but merely to an approach that focuses on working together in a spirit of tolerance and compromise in order to further the common good. In addition, that spirit reflects acknowledging, as our Founding Fathers did, the legitimacy of science and reason.

Ideology also means different things to different people, and this essay is not critical of all isms, for example liberalism or conservatism, but just to the rigid type of adherence we see with the Tea Party’s “Non-negotiable Core Beliefs, which prevents the type of openness and pragmatism mentioned by the pope. In a 2013 sermon Francis warned Christians against just such a rigid approach when he indicated that ideological Christianity was “a serious illness” that lead to an approach that was “rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.”

An entry on “Ideology” in the Encyclopedia Britannica observes: “The confrontation between ideology and pragmatism may be more instructive if it is translated into a distinction between the ideological and the pragmatic, taking these two adjectives as extremes on a sliding scale. From this perspective, it becomes possible to speak of differences of degree, to speak of an approach to politics as being more or less ideological, more or less pragmatic.” It is the more “pragmatic approach” that this essay is advocating.

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Whatever his other faults, President Obama favors the pragmatic approach to furthering the common good. We may disagree with how he defines that good or about the methods he uses to forward it, but he has demonstrated a desire to work with Congressional Republicans in a spirit of tolerance and compromise. “Obama Care” was just such a compromise hammered out with Congress. The necessity of reaching such a deal may have led to a weakening of what many liberals and progressives believed comprehensive health care reform should accomplish, but such is the reality of politics.

In his remarks after the latest mass shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon, the president said, “We have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?” He added, “Each time this [type of tragedy] happens I am going to say that we can actually do something about it, but we're going to have to change our laws. And this is not something I can do by myself. I've got to have a Congress and I've got to have state legislatures and governors who are willing to work with me on this.”

But to many Republicans compromise­ is a dirty word. Even House Speaker John Boehner, soon to resign in frustration over dealing with obstructionist Republicans, once said that he rejected the word “compromise” because too many people associated it with selling out. Almost four years ago, I cited a whole list of distinguished Americans who emphasized the need for political compromise. They included Ben Franklin, Russell Kirk (sometimes labeled “the Father of American Traditionalist Conservatism),” John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.

I also quoted conservative Republican senator Orrin Hatch speaking in 2009 after the death of his friend Democratic senator Edward Kennedy.

Ted was a lion among liberals, but he was also a constructive and shrewd lawmaker. He never lost sight of the big picture and was willing to compromise on certain provisions in order to move forward on issues he believed important. . . .

We can all take a lesson from Ted’s 47 years of service and accomplishment. I hope that America’s ideological opposites in Congress, on the airwaves, in cyberspace, and in the public square will learn that being faithful to a political party or a philosophical view does not preclude civility, or even friendships, with those on the other side.

. . . With the loss of such a liberal legislative powerhouse who spoke with conviction for his side of the aisle but who was always willing to look at an issue and find a way to negotiate a bipartisan deal, I fear that Washington has become too bitterly partisan. I hope that Americans in general and Washington politicians in particular will take a lesson from Ted’s life and realize that we must aggressively advocate for our positions but realize that in the end, we have to put aside political pandering, work together and do what is best for America.

Although Hatch’s words were timely in 2009, they are even more so today. What Lee Hamilton said in 2011—most voters wanted “to see things get resolved in a manner that responds to the needs of the country”—is even truer now. Whether their core values are based on religion or Enlightenment values like reason, science, and tolerance, or some other values mix, our legislators should be able to agree on measures to further the common good.

Both Pope Francis and the overwhelming number of climate scientists, unlike most Tea Party members, agree that human-caused global warming is a major crisis and that the common good necessitates a vigorous response. On what moral principles can Congressional inaction be justified on this and other important issues?

walter moss

Walter G. Moss