March 18, 2014
“Practical idealist” is a phrase I read in an excellent account of the 1960s in the United States, entitled America’s Uncivil Wars byMark Hamilton Lytle. He applied the label to Lyndon Johnson, to wit:
“The burden for dealing with the racial division in American life fell to President Lyndon Johnson. . . .[It seems safe to assume] that the uncivil wars that swept America after 1964 would not have been so widespread, violent, or extreme had Kennedy rather than Johnson been president. Something about Johnson and his personality aggravated the division in the nation. That must stand as the ultimate irony of the era, however, because Johnson defined himself as a practical idealist – forging compromises and holding the middle ground.” [pp. 148-49]
But why dismiss the possibility, even the likelihood, that it was not LBJ’s “personality” but his politics, his “practical idealism,” that was the root of the problem? After all, what is “the middle ground” between, say, a Bull Connor and a MLK, Jr. worth? From what perspective does “compromise” make sense between two such antagonists? And isn’t it actually that such “compromise” is a kind of extremism or at the very least facilitates a kind of extremism? For example, isn’t it extreme to ask some people to “wait a little longer” to have their rights honored and respected after they have been waiting for a very long time already? And isn’t this is especially extreme when this request is made so as not to offend those who have been denying these people those rights for that very long time?
By labeling LBJ – and other politicians – “practical,” we lose sight of their extremism and, therewith, we lose sight of how their kind of “practical idealism” promoted the “widespread, violent, and extreme” uncivil wars that rocked the nation in the 60’s. That is, we don’t or cannot see how what is called “pragmatism” is or facilitates extremism. Insofar as this is persuasive, then the uncivil wars of the 60’s cannot or should not be attributed to Johnson’s “personality” nor should it be implied that Kennedy’s “personality” would have had beneficial, pacifying affects on those wars. Insofar as Kennedy practiced the same kind of politics that Johnson practiced – a supposition that draws strength from the fact that Kennedy made Johnson his running mate in 1960 – then just so far a Kennedy presidency would not have made much difference in moderating the uncivil wars of the 60’s.
In an otherwise excellent account of the 60s, Lytle falls into the same trap that so many others have fallen into, viz., failing to see that our political troubles are tied up with how we practice politics in the United States. It seems pretty simple to me: We should assume that our political troubles have something to do with how we do politics in the United States. But, of course, such an assumption, once made, has implications that are quite significant.