We Americans keep saying we're looking for courage, authenticity and principle in politics. Yet we're very tough on public figures who display such traits.
People who are too principled are typically written off as impractical dreamers. Courage is seen as recklessness, and authenticity as stubbornness and inflexibility. In politics, we can't always get what we want because we're not sure we really want it.
Few public figures were more alive to this problem than the late Michael Harrington, whose life is done justice in a just-released biography, "The Other American" (PublicAffairs Press). Harrington, a socialist in a country not much taken with socialism, spoke often about the tensions confronting those who knew their ideas might be deemed impractical by the majority, but still sought to be politically effective.
The uncomfortable choice, Harrington said, was between "integrity and impotence, flexibility and betrayal." If you cling to your ideas with too much integrity, you may render yourself impotent. But if you display too much flexibility, you might betray what you value most.
The new book by historian Maurice Isserman can be ranked as a serious political event because Harrington, who died in 1989, was the most important and creative figure on the American left in the last half-century. Harrington never achieved political power, but he maintained a moral integrity that gave him influence over those who did.
He's most famous for his 1962 book on poverty, "The Other America," credited with spurring John F. Kennedy (and, by extension, Lyndon B. Johnson) to push for a war on poverty. He's honored as a socialist who always opposed dictatorships, including communist dictatorships that he thought discredited the very ideas to which he devoted his life.
And he inspired thousands still active in the world of politics and ideas. They keep alive his impatience with that most insidious of rationalizations for social indifference: the claim that nothing practical can ever be done to improve upon the way things are.
The problem with socialism itself, defined in the old-fashioned sense as government ownership of major industries, was well-expressed by the libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek: If the government owns everything, it owns the means to all our ends. Harrington understood the problem this posed for freedom and was constantly reinventing the socialist idea to accommodate what markets did well.
His greatest impatience was with capitalism's tendency to privatize success while socializing failure. Private firms do well by producing what the market will buy, while government is charged with handling the social costs left behind. Because government is stuck dealing with some of the hardest problems, it is often blamed for being ineffective.
But to reexamine Harrington's legacy, as Isserman does well, is to see an independent-minded thinker willing to confront difficulties many of his comrades preferred to avoid.
Long before it was hip to talk about the power of independent civic groups or "faith-based organizations," Harrington urged "nongovernmental agencies and individuals to involve themselves in the organization of the poor." Those outside government could be free of the "restrictions" that confronted those inside. Harrington believed in government, but without illusions.
He refused to join many on his side of politics in dismissing Daniel Patrick Moynihan's warnings about the dangers posed to the black community by the rise of the single-parent family. Harrington saw this as a real problem, but he also linked it with "unemployment and underemployment." Progressives, he thought, should care about unemployment and the state of the family at the same time.
And he foresaw earlier than many that "the technological revolution" would transform society and politics. The left, he insisted, needed to come to terms with the new middle-class busy being born.
Harrington's formula linking commitment to practical politics was a call for "visionary gradualism"--hold to your vision for the long run, but accept that in a democracy change is always a gradual and imperfect enterprise. Harrington was filled with affection for the United States, which (it's a paradox to some) made him a more effective radical. "He really loved this country," Dina Leventhal, a Harrington-inspired activist, told Isserman, "and thought you had to love this country to be a radical, to be a socialist and to want to change it." Harrington wanted one of the issues campaigns he organized in the mid-1970s to be called "America Can." The slogan failed, Isserman points out, because it sounded too much like the name of a container manufacturer.
But "America Can" reflects an optimism about America's social possibilities that needs to be rekindled. While Harrington offers limited guidance to the politician seeking election, he was a model for what courage, principle and authenticity could achieve. That's why his life is worth celebrating.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company