Going to Extremes

August 1, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a recent post (here), I referred to George Packer’s short essay on the current standoff in Washington. Packer used Max Weber’s distinction between an “ethic of responsibility” and an “ethic of ultimate ends.” Or, in Packer’s words, “between those who act from a sense of practical consequence and those who act from higher conviction, regardless of consequences.”

Packer said that the Republicans came down on the side of ultimate ends and that they were now extreme in their emphasis on principles regardless of consequences.

A commenter objected to Packer’s choice of words and dismissed his take on conservatives as “caricature.” . But a recent Economist/YouGov poll (here, July 23) suggests that although Packer’s diction may have been undiplomatic, he was essentially correct about the difference between the Republicans and others, a difference that holds not just in Washington but in the electorate generally.

The poll asked.
If you had to choose, would you rather have a congressperson who...
  • Compromises to get things done
  • Sticks to his or her principles no matter what

Here are the results.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

No other variables produced such large differences. Region, sex, age, and education yielded differences of at most a few percentage points. There was an 11-point gap between blacks and whites, High income respondents ($100K and up) were 17 points more likely to want compromise than were those with incomes less than $40K. These differences are dwarfed by the 36-point gap between Democrats and Republicans and the 45-point gap between Liberals and Conservatives. It’s also worth noting that the Independent/Moderates were much closer to the those on their left than to those on their right.

Readers of a certain age or readers of history may remember Barry Goldwater, GOP candidate for president in 1964, and his defense of principled “extremism.” Despite the reverence for Reagan that Republicans often proclaim, it’s Goldwater who may be their true guiding star.

1 comment:

brandsinger said...

This is a very interesting and instructive post. Over the past half century liberals have indeed embraced compromise of principle and pragmatism in the face of serious challenges. Theirs is a vision – starting with FDR – of using government to solve problems no matter what the cost or long-term consequences. Conservatives have moved closer to articulating and acting on principle – hence the credible survey numbers cited.

Looking back in US history, I think our greatest leaders were able to find pragmatic solutions to serve inspired principles. Lincoln was known to be pragmatic ("If I could save the Union without freeing a single slave... etc.") yet his legacy is of a man who fought and triumphed over evil, enlisting high moral purpose. The Founders fought for liberty -- that was a cherished ideal -- and yet their Constitution was achieved thanks to notorious compromises.

I think we see in our own day Tea-partyites trying to rekindle the ideal of principled action -- to an extreme degree in the recent debt ceiling battle (e.g. the quixotic call for a balanced budget amendment). While liberals revealed their bafflement by intoning that raising the debt ceiling was routine. It's routine. Routine. Routine to "raise" the debt "ceiling"!! without understanding the pathetic contradiction in this position and in their own un-guided tolerance for an unsustainable status quo.

Yes, it's been a battle between those who have dug in their heels and said "enough." and those who want to go along and get along without making waves. Conservatives can be called "extremists" ("in the defense of liberty") -- or idealists. But they can not fairly be branded the things that Packer called them in that cynical, dishonest hack-job cited in your previous post.