I deal with reality as it is, not as it should be.
— Proverbial American saying
While others talked, Ariel Sharon created facts on the ground.
— Proverbial Israeli saying
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the
reality-based community,” which he defined as people who
“believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of
discernible reality.”…. “That’s not the way the world really
works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and
when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re
studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again,
creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s
how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of
you, will be left to just study what we do.
— anonymous George W. Bush official
(reputedly Karl Rove) to Ron Suskind, 2004.
There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask
why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?
— Robert Kennedy
The philosophers of the world have only interpreted the world in
various ways; the point is to change it.
— Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach
Reality based politics
Democrats take pride in being members of a rational political party which accepts the truths of science and puts them into practice, and the majority of American social scientists (even economists) are Democrats. At the same time, Democrats continually find themselves regretting that, even when they are in office, Republican resistance means that there’s not much they can actually do. If you ask a Democratic pro why it is that they can’t win elections when they’re so much more in touch with reality than the Republicans, he will use abundant data and the best theories to make you look stupid while he’s explaining why nothing is possible. For the party of lowered expectations, Science is now primarily useful for constructing proofs of futility.
For all the “reality-based” brag, the Democrats’ unreality-based adversaries have been setting the agenda for at least four decades now. There are many reasons for this (including the gerrymandered Senate, big money, and the degradation of the kept media), but I think that the Democrats’ approach to “reality”, as expressed in the “reality-based” slogan, is partly to blame. Their assumption (based on certain kinds of archaic social science) is that social reality is a known and given thing, and that you start by using the tools of science and reason to find out what is, and after that make your decisions about what to do based on what you know.
Democratic party politics is responsible, normalized, cautious, and passive to the electorate as it is thought to exist right now– the application of the well-grounded principles of social science to a supposedly-known world. This is consistent with Democrats (the Administrators of Democracy) being secure, well-educated, establishmentarian professionals and administrators who play by and enforce the rules, fighting a defensive struggle which they vaguely realize is a slow retreat.
Republicans, on the other hand, tend to be self-made entrepreneurs (e.g., Karl Rove — one year of college), sometimes with criminal pasts, who have an eye out for money lying on the ground and are always looking for exceptions and changes and transient opportunities to cash in on. Republican action is (besides being unethical) is experimental, exploratory, venturesome, opportunistic, transformational, and activist. (This can be seen at the national Young Republicans conventions, where they compete at deceiving, cheating, and betraying one another, with the winners of the ratfucking contest moving up to a higher level and using their well-honed skills against the Democrats and against the electorate). And since 1980, the Republicans have repeatedly changed the nature of the game, always for the worse.
One argument against what I’ve said so far is that its premise is that the Democratic pros and the party they control have not been succeeding. Their steady retreat before the Republican attacks, their increasing adoption of Republican policy positions, their passive acceptance of the Republican
control of Congress (if only by filibuster) and of an increasing proportion of the state legislatures, and many other factors do make them seem ineffectual. However, while the pros still have to campaign as if the traditional progressive goals were still those of the party, they frequently let it slip that they think that history has moved on, and that progressivism is an archaic superstition; and if they really think this, they will win by losing.
As individuals and as a faction within the party, the neoliberals/neocons are attaining their own goals even as the party itself weakens. (Walter Karp’s Indispensable Enemies shows how the party pros have their own interest, often opposed to that of their voters, and Horace Samuel Merrill’s Bourbon Democracy of the Middle West 1865-1896 shows how Democrats in the late 19th century Midwest almost never won office, but succeeded by keeping the Democratic Party out of the hands of the Populists).
If the Democratic pros really are winning by losing (and they are paid very, very well), reality-based rhetoric would just be one of the gimmicks by which the Democratic pros flatter a key demographic, the lumpenintelligentsia, by letting them think that they are savvy insiders and persuading them to stand patiently at the end of the line while the more important interest groups are being serviced. It’s all realistic, tough-minded, seventeen-dimensional chess based on deep principles of science, see?
And then again, it is also true that, while much of the lumpenintelligentsia is nominally on the left of the Democratic Party (or to its left), many of this group’s real, non-altruistic demands are still being met (though this is less true every year), and it’s only the unrealistic, idealistic, public-spirited demands
(the ones which democracy is supposedly all about) which are being sacrificed.
, All told, the Democratic Party pros in “the reality-based community” still haven’t learned their lesson, and the Democratic Party’s strategy and tactics often seem flat-footed even even in terms of their own unprogressive goal. Perhaps these tough-minded realists been been taken in by their own line of bullshit.
One friend was offended because I seemed to be suggesting that the Democratic Party should take Dick Cheney and Ariel Sharon as models. I am only suggesting that their understanding of the relationship between knowledge and action is superior to the Democratic understanding, and that the “reality-based” principle (acting judiciously on the basis of the best available understanding of what is) is deficient in more than one way. The best available understanding is often not very good, and venturesome political action can effectively be an experiment increasing that knowledge while at the same time changing the reality, when what is turns what is into what was. Likewise, for anyone trying to do anything, what might be and what should be are as important as what is.
We are actually dealing with two different kinds of realism here, a cautious one based on the reality that already is, and a bold one based on what what reality might become ,given the dynamic way things actually happen in human history. And if Cheney’s boldness didn’t work well in Iraq (and we don’t know that; it may have worked well for him), Republican boldness has worked wonderfully well against the Democrats.