Thursday, November 21, 2002

The Political Philosophy of Paul Wellstone

In a sense, Senator Wellstone was a conservative. Most of the time, he took the attitude that instead of radical upheaval, we should look for specific, evidentially demonstrable problems in the political system and rectify them by applying American values and law. But he was a liberal in that he devoted himself to the problems faced by the poor. He would use political power to bring the country's treatment of poor people in line with our values. This core vision therefore puts the Senator, on balance, slightly to the left of center.

The first point about the Senator's political philosophy is this: Poverty brings with it the lack of power to protect one's rights, rights established by our values and laws. When the poor are in dire need or being treated wrongfully by the rich, the problem goes overlooked and therefore unrectified. Some wealthy people succeed in perverting and impeding representative democracy and thus in preventing us from living up to our values. We should endeavor to change the structure of power in society so that it comes more in line with our values. This will be a matter of grass-roots organizations (such as tenant groups), unions, and public funding. The leaders of these groups should emerge from them democratically, rather than being outsiders claiming to have special leadership powers. The point is to inquire carefully into the overlooked facts about poverty and to survey our values and laws clearly. The goal is facts, truth, and correct application of American values and law. A progressive attitude towards changing the power structure in society is meant to accomplish this goal. This philosophy puts the Senator slightly to the left of center: conservative in the aforementioned sense, but progressive in a moderately leftist sense.

In brief, the Senator devoted his career to a simple value: that there was tremendous suffering amongst the poor, particularly amongst poor children, and that this suffering should be alleviated by grass-roots mustering of political power in order use power to bring government back in line with our values.

The second point about the Senator's philosophy is that there was a fallacy in it that moved it too far to the left. Wellstone was right that our core values commit us to redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor because of the undeserved misery amongst the poor. He inferred from this premise that as long as there was any such misery we should continue to redistribute the wealth with more government programs, such as socialized health care. This was a seductive inference indeed, given that if we have a duty to help the miserably poor, then it would seem that as long as there are still miserably poor people we haven't fulfilled our duty. What Wellstone wasn't able to see was that the duty of the wealthy is not necessarily to sacrifice as long as there is any undeserved misery amongst the poor. Their duty was to sacrifice substantially, and Americans had determined, according to their values, that they had already fulfilled this duty. In other words, the fact that you have a duty to help people in need does not prove that you ought to exhaust yourself until there are no more people in need; the burden of doing so might be too great. But Wellstone could see only the misery and not its practical ineradicability. He couldn't reconcile himself to the fact that ending misery was a practical impossibility or, at least, would hamstring the American economy in ways unacceptable to American values.

The Senator might have devoted his career and enormous energy to streamlining the welfare programs already in place by making them more effective at the same cost. This would have kept his politics moderately to the left. In this sense, the fallacy in his philosophy was somewhat tragic. Twelve years devoted to streamlining welfare programs would have served American values, both moderate left and moderate right. But the urgency he felt about the miserably poor kept him from taking this more judicious stance.

In spite of the fallacy, Wellstone was intellectually honest. He knew that the point of the political forum was to argue about what American values entailed when rendered coherent and in line with the facts. He didn't think, as Plato, Lenin, and Mao did, that he knew better and ought to impose his special knowledge of justice on others too stupid to grasp it. He would argue, and he would stick to grass-roots democracy. He was motivated neither by hatred nor envy. He was motivated by benevolence, reason, and democracy. He was a true-blue American liberal.

[Paul Wellstone's books: How the Rural Poor Got Power (1978) and The Conscience of a Liberal (2002)]