Gary Wills on Political Purity

From NYReview of Books by Gary Wills — his advocacy for political realism and not political idealism:

Roberto Unger, descended from a famous Brazilian family, is a respected philosopher, a famous political activist, and a professor at the Harvard Law School (tenured there, thirty-six years ago, at the unusually young age of twenty-nine). He has many just grounds for being famous. But he is best known now, in recent news items, for having taught Barack Obama two courses at Harvard. The professor has released a special video saying that he is too principled to have any further dealings with his former student. His message is that “Obama must be defeated” for failing to advance the progressive agenda.

I freely admit that Unger’s principles are better than Obama’s, that next to him Obama’s credentials as a progressive are muddied and blunted. If I had to choose between them as men of probity, I would prefer Unger as quick as the eye can blink. But in politics we never choose men of much probity. One of the recurring comedies of American politics is the rapture with which people elect a shining prince, and then collapse into self-pitying cries of betrayal when the shine comes off once the candidate is in office. A refrain of dismay runs the fairy tale in reverse: “We elected a prince and he turned into a frog.”

Obama was never a prince. None of them are. The mistake behind all this is a misguided high-mindedness that boasts, “I vote for the man, not the party.” This momentarily lifts the hot-air balloon of self-esteem by divorcing the speaker from political taintedness and compromise. But the man being voted for, no matter what he says, dances with the party that brought him, dependent on its support, resources, and clientele. That is why one should always vote on the party, instead of the candidate. The party has some continuity of commitment, no matter how compromised. What you are really voting for is the party’s constituency. That will determine priorities when it comes to appointments, legislative pressure, and things like nominating Supreme Court justices….

Those who think there is no difference between the parties should look at the state that no longer elects any Democrats, the Texas described so well by Gail Collins, with its schools attacking evolution, its religious leaders denying there was ever any separation of church and state, and its cowboy code of justice. If people like Professor Unger, people too highly principled for us folks who muck around in the real world, get their way, they will not give us a prince turned into a frog, but America turned into Texas.

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  • I truly don’t get a liberal saying “Obama must be defeated.” I’m fine with them saying that he hasn’t been liberal enough (if that’s what they believe), but who are they considering as their alternative?

    I’m all for voting for a third party candidate if one feels that person better represents one’s views. But I haven’t heard of any progressive/liberal third party candidates out there (I know a few conservatives), let alone ones who would better serve the country than Obama (specifically as liberals see it).

    (I confess to not clicking the original link… and frankly feel that any expectation that readers of this blog to do so is more than a little unrealistic. If the original provides such an alternative, I’m curious to know about it.)

  • JamesG

    Do people forget that Obama only lost Texas by 8 points in 2008, and that the major urban areas of Texas all voted blue?

    Too committed to their caricature to see the facts, I guess.

  • JamesG, I *was* rather wondering about that assertion that Texas “no longer elects any Democrats.”

    I would also dispute the suggestion that Texas is what we’d see if Unger got his way. Surely an all-liberal body would look fundamentally different (not saying better or worse) than a all-conservative one, wouldn’t it?

  • As a Texan, I’m offended by the author’s statements. They are false stereotypes, and not an accurate portrayal of the diversity of our state.

    First of all, Texas definitely has Democrats in office. (

    As for our “cowboy code of justice”, I guess that includes leading the way in DNA exonerations. (

    We’re not perfect, but we’re not a stereotype either.

  • RobS

    It looks like 8 out of the 32 US House members from Texas are Democrats, so not many, true. Those of us just outside Washington, DC have to laugh about the fact Democrats outnumber Republicans around 10-1 there. No Republican has ever been mayor since home rule in 1975. Independents may be elected, but never a Republican.

    From the outside observer, I have to admit, I wonder why they don’t try a few new ideas. Public service is a mess. Corruption and cronyism is common. Crime is pretty bad. Graduation rates are under 60%. Despite the alignment of political party, the infighting is pretty bad. I would think maybe they would support a few new ideas and try to elect someone who brings those.

    I guess this guy can rage about Texas, but it’s more diverse than DC I’d bet.

  • Fish

    Come on. I’ve lived in Texas, twice, and my daughter was born there. Texans do have a sense that they are superior to the rest of the US. I’ve heard lots and lots of demeaning comments from native-born Texans about other states. Surely they can take what they tend to dish out so easily.

    Anyway, to the point of the article, I’m a lib who is sadly disappointed in Obama, and I usually refer to him as a closet Republican. But the alternatives are far worse.

  • JamesG

    Fish, yes, many Texans can be that way. Thing is, I’ve lived in other states, as well as countries, and to a one they all do the same. I live in NY now, and they’d give Texans a run for the money on regional bias, pride, and demeaning comments any day of the week. Goodness, half of them don’t even know how to speak nicely of the other parts of their own state!

  • Fish

    True. I was born in Arkansas so I guess I have developed a very thick skin, having had Texans look down on me since the day I was born. But that’s not unique, at all. The first time I went to a meeting in New Jersey, they asked me how I liked it. I said it’s great, I just can’t get used to wearing shoes. After the roars of laughter subsided, I said I didn’t intend it to be THAT funny.

  • Oh Texas…… It’s complicated. I’m from Texas, and not a Republican, but as another commentor observed, the Urban Areas in Texas are still very blue. Especially Austin, which is where I am from. Texas had a democratic governor before George Bush actually. Ann Richardson. I think Texas got a little upitty that it’s beloved native son became president……sigh. It’s wearing off.

    If you want to give us a hard time though, you can always remind us of the history Texas doesn’t like to remember – that the US went to war with Mexico over the Southwest yes, but one of their generals wrote something to the effect that Texas to Arizona had nothing, but California was well worth the US efforts to fight for it. Apparently, the US never wanted us in the first place, but to get California they had to secure the whole Southwest……then of course they realized later Texas had oil, so it wasn’t that bad of a deal…….

    Yes it’s been Republican for many years, but that doesn’t mean it won’t swing back. It gets steadily closer every election.

  • DRT

    As a northerner who has spent 13 years in the south, Virginia, I can attest that the people do treat each other well and that is regarded as brand of civility and responsibility. But the problem is that they only do that to their faces. The expectation is that you are nice to their face, and lie, and make small talk, and whatever else you need to do, so that when you are away from them you nail them behind their back.

    It is the same problem that we have in the debate going on in the TGC blog regarding sex. The authors are all nice and saying they don’t really mean the strong form of what people are objecting to, but the reality of the situation is that every true red blooded TGC supporter knows very well what they mean. Then know that they have to say all that bs to the responsants and try and maintain a good face. But their real message is meant for the ingroup. The ingroup understands what they are saying and they understand the they cannot come right out and admit that women are inferior and it is obvious, it is common sense that the man has a built in sword and there is only one thing you can do with a sword if you are a conservative man.

    I seem to have lost the link, but the Texas board of education voted that they should not be teaching critical thinking skills to their children. Sorry if this offends anyone, but I believe it is true and needs to be yelled from the rooftops. It is freaking crazy to think that we should not be teaching critical thinking skills to our kids.

    We are in deep trouble people and it is going to take a major even to to change the dynamic. We have a whole political party that has gone off the deep end and it is going to have major impacts on our society.

  • It wasn’t the board of education, it was the Republican Party of Texas. (see Page 12)

    Texans have their faults. I just dislike the stereotype. We’re more diverse than that.

  • Jerry

    If you want to see the counter result look to California and its liberal control of the legilslatrue and executive.