Post-mortem media coverage of last night’s Republican primary debate has focused on several key distinctions including the differing approaches to social security offered by Perry and Romney, the divergent constitutional interpretation articulated by Paul, and the contrasting approach to scientific knowledge on display by Huntsman.
But it was the refrain of an unreconciled dichotomy between “thinking” and “doing” that offers the best insight into the upcoming 2012 election match-up between President Obama and his GOP challenger. The clearest moment was when Governor Perry, discussing Social Security, declared, “You can either have reasons, or you can have results.” Even though Perry later discussed his own deliberations on the HPV vaccine law, lauded Texas’ “thoughtful” process of capital punishment, and cited Galileo as an example of scientific peer review processes, the dominant theme of the GOP debate was— it is time to do away with the useless endeavor of thinking and to move swiftly toward taking action.
This is a message likely to resonate with American voters across partisan and ideological lines.
America’s unrelenting economic distress and persistent international military entanglements cry out for redress. Observers on the left and the right are demanding that something be done—now. The free flowing criticism of the president’s as yet undelivered jobs speech is fueled by the sense that public pronouncements and private dialogue are a waste of time in this crisis. The demand for action is a bipartisan revolt against the professorial president.
Progressives ought be reticent to join this outcry against deliberate, thoughtful public airing of the ideas that undergird policy choices. Republican presidential candidates are not stupid. They are not action figures who posses supra-constitutional abilities to make things better. They are operating with guiding philosophies about how much inequality should be tolerated, grand visions of what a fair America should look like, and binding ideas about the role of government in advancing the cause of justice. Their actions will, undoubtedly, proceed from those thoughts. A fence on the border, the end of social security as a public trust, the repeal of basic environmental standards are all policy goals rooted in philosophical claims. Our economic and political circumstances demand that we know more than what these candidates propose to do. We need to listen to why they plan to do it.
And then we have to offer clear alternatives, not only to policy actions, but to underlying theories of economy and government that support these policies. The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote of the importance of the “insurrection of subjugated knowledges.” Such an insurrection is critically needed in our public realm. Even as we seek action, we cannot discard thought.