Reality Check

In Search of Reinhold Niebuhr

America could use a little philosophical humility right now.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Surprised that America can’t find comprehensive solutions to its problems at home and abroad? Don’t be.

Say hello to Reinhold Niebuhr. The late theologian, philosopher, author, and activist was one smart guy. And it’s easy to see why. More than half a century after his passing, Niebuhr continues to provide a compelling antidote to our well-intentioned but unrealistic quest for the Big Answer.

On foreign policy, Niebuhr knew that no great power — not even the United States — could guide history. Even in the best of times, America never controlled the world — and we certainly do not control it now. That doesn’t mean we can’t be effective abroad: We are still the most consequential power on Earth, and boast a better balance of economic, political and military power than any other country. Let’s say we’re preeminent, but not super dominant.

But no matter how powerful we may be, Niebuhr cautioned against America’s tendency to moralize, to set itself apart, and to assume it had a monopoly on justice and truth. He urged humility in the face of the forces of history. He advised the United States to be aware of the limitations imposed by circumstances beyond its control. And he would have agreed with Ralph Waldo Emerson that more often than not, events are in the saddle and ride mankind.

Niebuhr’s view of democracy is also still relevant today. In many ways, he bumps into America’s self-image as a people who can overcome any challenge — a trope that inexorably and understandably finds its way into the talking points of every politician in America.

Niebuhr cherished the democratic enterprise. It was his belief that man’s capacity for justice was what made democracy possible — and man’s inclination to injustice was what made democracy necessary. But as a Christian theologian, Niebuhr also understood human weakness and frailty, which in the end produced “proximate solutions for insoluble problems.” Niebuhr sought the middle ground — the space between the utopianism of the moral idealists and the despair of the cynical realists.

I raise Niebuhr now not to discourage Americans from trying to sort out their problems. The constant striving to close the gap between the way the world is and the way we’d like it to be is one of our greatest strengths. But his perspective is important. We have vast technological and military power. When you give us a task in which the science, technical expertise, and the capacity to innovative is within our capacity, we do well. But when you add in politics and the age-old tussle over the role of government versus individual rights, guess what? We don’t fare nearly as well.

So is Niebuhr right? On gun control, entitlements, climate change, or immigration reform, is the best we can hope for these days proximate solutions to insoluble problems? I suspect he is. And here’s why.

Transformative change is rare…

Niebuhr’s view of imperfect outcomes isn’t just a reflection of our contemporary politics. This has been the way change has occurred in the United States since the inception of the republic. The system that the founders created was, to use political scientist Edwin Corwin’s notion, an open invitation to struggle.

America’s earliest leaders were fearful of both the king and his royal governors on the one hand, and the people — the mob — on the other. So they devised institutions that reflected a system of checks, balances, and constraints that made the accumulation of power — let alone the deployment of that power in the service of dramatic change — very difficult.

How many truly transformative moments engineered by government have there been in America’s history? Only a handful — the American Revolution itself, the drafting of the Constitution and birth of the Republic, the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of the slaves, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal; President Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights and Great Society legislation, and President Ronald Reagan’s success in changing the terms of the debate over the role of big government.

And even those changes took years to bear fruit. We are at best “evolutionary revolutionaries,” who fear unbridled change and who seek to temper it. Indeed, our three undeniably greatest presidents — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR — were still very much conservative revolutionaries who found a balance between their principles and the pragmatic tactics necessary to realize their ideals. Change in America is no easy matter.

…and it requires real crisis

Transformative change in the United States requires something to go very wrong — and we’re not talking about your garden-variety crisis. Only serious crises can override the unruly nature of our politics, and overcome the structural constraints the founders built into the system.

Once such crisis was the issue of slavery. The founders punted on the issue, and American leaders spent the next half-century looking for ways to manage the southern-northern divide — until the system could no longer accommodate those compromises. It was only secession and war that made them face up to the reality that the survival of the nation required a resolution of the race issue. And it would still take another 150 years to reconcile the promise of the Declaration of Independence with the reality of the U.S. Constitution.

Today, we face crises of a different order. Our challenges certainly weaken our nation — they could perhaps even destroy our power. But they are slower bleeds that threaten us over time — and they lack the immediacy of Depression-era bread lines in the 1930s or the violent images of baton beatings and police dogs charging civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s.

The United States is too big, and too easily distracted. The media covers everything — and nothing seems to last more than 15 minutes. The terrible shootings in Newtown fade, the Boston Marathon bombing takes over and is then displaced by the explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas. The U.S. government’s capacity to focus on problems is made all the harder.

And our modern-day crises don’t tame our political system, but polarize it even further. It’s not the worst polarization in U.S. history — Lincoln had it far worse. But a combination of factors, including redistricting, the collapse of the centers in both parties (but much worse on the Republican side), and fundamental gaps on core issues such as the role of government have made our political system both too petty and too principled to get things done.

One might have imagined that the slaughter of school children in Connecticut would have been a moment for Americans to come together in a moment of national unity. And it may well have been — momentarily. Just consider the polls. Nine in 10 Democrats, more than eight in 10 Republicans and independents, and almost nine in 10 Americans who live in households with guns supported expanded background checks. Still, on April 17, the Senate by a vote of 54-46, with a handful of Democrats joining the Republicans, fell shy of the 60 votes needed to pass the measure.

The moment succumbed to what Rutgers political scientist Ross K. Baker described as a “textbook example of intensity trumping preference.” In the rough and tumble world of gun lobbying, the parents of those children and teachers lost at Newtown never had a chance. It takes more than just public opinion to effec
t change. “Polls,” Baker added, “just don’t translate into public policy.”

Big change requires big leaders

It’s no coincidence that America’s three greatest presidents coincided with the three greatest challenges the nation has faced — the birth of the republic, the civil war, and the Great Depression. A crisis can present a leader with an opportunity — but he still has to seize it.

Barack Obama is already a historic president. No doubt, he would like to become a great one. This is unlikely, partly because circumstances at home and abroad won’t let him, and partly because of his own limitations.

The good news is that Obama has learned much in his first four years in office. He isn’t going to be a transformative president who transcends partisan politics and changes the world at home and abroad. The fact is, he’s really been a Niebuhrian all along. And there’s evidence that the president knows it. Here’s what he told New York Times columnist David Brooks that he learned from the man that he described as one of his favorite philosophers:

“I take away,” Obama said, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense that we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism.”

Obama is neither a utopian idealist nor a cynical realist. He’s constantly striving for rationality in a political world that doesn’t always offer it up, and searching for some kind of elusive golden mean.

The president’s real challenge — and ours too — is that he can’t seem to find that balance. Forget about transformation; we can’t manage the basic transactions — pragmatic fixes on gun control, the budget, entitlements, taxes, and immigration reform. Yet we must. Because Niebuhr was right. We simply cannot allow the proximate to become the enemy of the perfect. America’s future depends on it. 

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