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Rivalry Over Great Principles Reaching Impasse

By P. Andrew Sandlin
Published March 31, 2008

IF POLITICS IS THE ART OF COMPROMISE, almost every cranny of American society has become politicized. In refusing to endorse the presidency of Bill Clinton, a Little Rock, Arkansas newspaper complained that the governor’s problem is not that he sacrifices his principles, but that it is uncertain he has principles to sacrifice.

That criticism is just as applicable to Republican and independent candidates and educators and entertainers and media personalities and military leaders and mechanics and bus drivers and housewives and librarians. Increasingly, the strategy of pragmatism and the message of pluralism from which it issues dominates American life.

The modern pluralistic thesis goes like this. All of us in this professedly pluralistic country are not going to agree on all – or perhaps even most – issues. The United States is increasingly diverse. We are liberal and conservative; male and female; Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Islamic; black, white, Hispanic and Asian; heterosexual and homosexual; elderly, middle-aged and young; upper-, lower-, and middle-class. The most prudent way of dealing with the problems engendered by the close proximity of such diverse individuals and groups is to affirm the ultimate, fundamental, indeed, the seemingly only, axiom on which all may agree and which serve as the social cohesion amidst overwhelming diversity – I’m OK and You’re OK, just as long as Your OK doesn’t infringe on My OK.

This is the pluralistic message. It is guided by the employment of pragmatism, the view that nothing can be accomplished without compromise, that fundamental principles are amenable to revision in terms of the even greater goal of social harmony. The really important thing is that everybody get along, a state accomplished by the willingness of everybody not to be too insistent on individual beliefs.

The increasingly numerous supporters of this social philosophy are naive, however. They do not recognize that some visions of reality, civilization, justice, freedom and the future are fundamentally irreconcilable, mutually contradictory. Certain principles are great precisely because they are not subject to compromise. Pivotal events in the history of the United States highlight this inflexibility of great principles. In the Revolutionary Era the colonists were convinced compromise with the policy of taxation without representation was tantamount to complicity with tyranny, that, in the words of Jefferson, “[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations … evinces a design to reduce [citizens] under absolute despotism despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government….” Jefferson justified this revolt by appeals to great principles, so-called “self-evident truths.”

Similarly, Abraham Lincoln was willing to spill the blood of a nation at the hands of its own citizens to preserve what he considered a fundamental principle, that the Declaration of Independence in principle secured the liberty of all humanity, not just white males. He was emphatically not motivated by the mentality so prominent today, which transported to and immersed in 1850 become; “It’s OK for Southerners to own slaves, just as long as they don’t try to force slavery in the free territories.” Indeed, just such thinking obtained in various antebellum compromises, all of which were miserable failures. It was because Lincoln repudiated the sort of thinking so prominent in our modern United States that slavery no longer exists here.

While many beliefs are discretionary and subject to compromise, others are held so tenaciously that compromise is virtually impossible. For example, the pro-abortion arrayed against the pro-life forces are locked into a fight to the death. The great guiding principle of the pro-abortion devotees is the right of a woman to “reproductive freedom.” to her body, to “her own choices that affect her life.” The undergirding principle of pro-life is the right of the fetus or unborn child to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These two visions are mutually exclusive and compromises between them like those between slavery and abolitionism preceding the Civil War are futile: no amount of regulation short of banning abortion is likely to appease those who believe abortion is murder. No amount of regulation is likely to appease those who believe abortion is murder. No extension of abortion rights to anything less than unrestrictive “reproductive freedom” will satisfy those who believe the lack of such freedom is a violation of a woman’s constitutional rights. The hostility at the doors of abortion clinics between pro-abortion and pro-life forces is simply the visual manifestation of the war between two rival thought systems.

This sort of worldview rivalry exists over the issues of environmentalism, homosexuality and multiculturalism. Supporters of the two sides of each of these views are combatants; they are not interested in a pragmatic solution to the rivalry because the very nature of their vision precludes the existence of the opposite vision. Each side, like Krushchev in his comment to the American press, is working for victory, like coexistence. Coexistence for the disciples of opposing visions is defeat.

The foundational meaning of commonwealth is a group of people united by common interests. Stable nations are designated commonwealths because they presuppose common interests, but when interests no longer are common, a commonwealth is no longer possible. Therefore, it is incumbent on the United States to address the issue of great fundamental principles if it is to survive as a vibrant republic. The solution is not to assume that all principles may be compromised or, more naively, that none have principles to compromise.

Our history reminds us that postponing or compromising decisions over fundamental principles is the supreme exercise of futility.


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