Stop Saying You’re a Pragmatist

We made it, y’all! We survived the meat of the presidential primary season, all those days and nights of refreshing three Google Chrome browser tabs to figure out who was winning which state, by how much, and what it all means. Unfortunately, we didn’t emerge unscathed, with Republicans facing a choice between a fascist and a vaguely Rand-ian Christian theocrat, but as the saying goes, other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? Results will still trickle in over the next few months, but at least now we have a really good idea of where the candidates stand and what the race will look like. Republicans will more likely than not head to brokered convention, where who knows what will happen. On the Democratic side, Clinton is the overwhelming favorite, on track to get around 54-55% of the pledged delegates to Sanders’ 45-46%. If Sanders is to have any shot at challenging Clinton, he’s got to start winning by big margins and fast, and there’s just not a lot of evidence that such a thing will happen.

Clearly, Republicans have their own dirty laundry to sort out, but I am not a Republican nor do I think I have a ton of Republican readers, so I’d like to offer a few thoughts to my fellow left-leaning friends, to Clinton supporters, Sanders supporters, and everyone out there. In this blog, I’ll talk about what I don’t like hearing from Clinton supporters.

We’ve all heard it before: Hillary is pragmatic while Bernie is idealistic. It’s a trope that gets repeated over and over and over, it might be a punditry fact by this point. But it’s a really dishonest statement, for the simple fact that it’s really dadgum hard to figure out what is pragmatic and what isn’t. I’ll cede to the Hillary camp the point that her financial regulation scheme, for example, seems to be more easily carried out than Bernie’s Wall Street speculation tax (more on this later). But this so-called pragmatism doesn’t extend to all her policies. Sanders, for example, seems to have been a lot more pragmatic on foreign policy, which the main reason why I cast my vote for Sanders in the primary. He argues for us to consider the limits of American power when making decisions (such as Iraq), while committing to a multilateral, human rights-focused campaign when possible (such as in the former Yugoslavia, which Clinton of course supported as well). Clinton has been the dangerously idealistic one, having thought that we can “fix” Iraq and Libya; now she tells us that the no-fly zone in Syria will keep us out of war. The jury is out.

But returning to the financial regulation point, we seem to run into problems when we think more long-term. Are Clinton’s proposed reforms likely to tear the rot out of Wall Street? Probably not. Are her modest proposed tax hikes going to take any big bites out of economic inequality? Doubtful. Is it idealistic to think that we can only moderately address these looming problems and not face huge crises down the road? Probably. So which is more pragmatic: supporting reforms that are more likely to pass but only incompletely fix a systemic problem, or supporting large-scale reforms that would wholly fix a problem but are unlikely to pass? On this one, too, the jury is out.

So often in our political discourse, pragmatism becomes a code word for centrism, for the simple fact that it’s easier to get things done when you’re closer to America’s political center. You can compromise on a lot, because, well, you’re more suited to compromise anyway. But the thing is, compromise and pragmatism are two different things. A pragmatist, at her essence, is little more than someone who has an exceptionally clear view of her long-term goals and how to achieve them, and perhaps a willingness to endure short-term frustration to reach her long-term goals. Does that involve compromise? Sure. But pragmatism can also mean staking out the intransigent, radical position for later gain.

I think of the Occupy Wall Street organizers who got pilloried in the center-left press for not presenting a concrete policy ask. Back in those dark days of debt limits and budget deals, there were a good number of politicians and pundits ready to use the OWS protests to push their anti-tax-cut agendas and lambast Republican voodoo economics. And they weren’t without reason for wanting that. Yet the organizers stuck like glue to their 99%, economic inequality message, calculating that it was better to highlight the broad, structural problems in our system than throw their support behind any one bill. Now, almost five years later, the Democrats cannot stop talking about minimum wage and paid family leave, and over 2 in 5 Democrats are supporting a candidate who wants to raise the top tax bracket to over 50%. That’s some pragmatic change.

My point is that there’s nothing that should make us prefer intransigence to compromise, or vice versa. The true pragmatist uses both when the time is right. I think the central insight that a lot of Sanders supporters and I took from the past eight years is that the Democrats may have leaned too heavily on the tendency to compromise. We won some minor battles, but we let the right move the goalposts and veer the discussion towards increasingly right-wing policies.Here are just a few examples:

Cap and trade, which was originally a Republican idea, couldn’t pass a Democratic super-majority Senate. The Affordable Care Act, based on another Republican idea, almost met the same fate, and only after a major restriction on abortion access. In Obama’s second term, remember watching the 2013 State of the Union, when President Obama made his pitch for universal pre-K and thinking, “Wow, now here’s a great policy proposal. It’s supported by both Republican and Democratic politicians, it’s already being implemented in both red and blue states, and it offers a great return on investment. Plus, it speaks to the “equality of opportunity’ value that Republicans always say they value. Of course, I expected it to be Dead on Arrival in Congress, because of course there were vague, unsubstantiated concerns about government programs, and why give Obama a policy victory? And of course, it went nowhere.

Make no mistake, we need drastic, drastic changes (one might say, a revolution) if we are to face up to the terribly real problems of economic inequality, climate change, and the prison-industrial complex (to name a few). It doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend that these problems doesn’t exist, or aren’t as pressing as they actually are. If you believe, for example, Thomas Piketty’s claim that our wealth inequality is hurtling us towards a Pride and Prejudice-like society of rentiers (and having actually read Piketty’s book, I think there’s no reason not to), then you really shouldn’t be content with a politician who promises a modest tax hike for a few people. You should be pushing for something more drastic, not out of some idealistic sense that the change will be easy, because of the danger of keeping the status quo.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone should vote for Bernie. A ton of people whose political opinions I dearly respect are Hillary supporters, with really good reasons for supporting her. And there are a lot of Sanders supporters that are idealists, people who think “the revolution” is coming now in the form of 90% voter turnout and a landslide Sanders victory. Those people should be called out. But please, for the love of all things progressive, let’s quit debating this idealism thing and focus on debating their policies, because I’m going to just hazard a guess that the main reason people support Sanders is because they’re to the left of Clinton, and vice versa. In a coalition as large and diverse as the modern Democratic Party, we’re probably not going to agree with each other all the time on all the issues. We probably won’t like that we don’t agree on everything. And, for a modern political party, that’s OK. Healthy, even. But if we’re going to disagree, let’s at least go in with the knowledge that, like beauty, pragmatism is often in the eye of the beholder.

Bernie is right to say we need a revolution. We do. He’s never said, though, that the revolution would be easy. He’s needs to somehow get elected, and if elected, pass his extensive agenda. All those things are highly improbable, and frankly, they all would take a political system that looks pretty different than the one we have right now. But I like that we at least have a policy program out there by which we can measure how screwed up our current politics are. An ideal, if you will, not to hope and dream for, but to work diligently, through thousands of tiny changes, to achieve. Seems pretty pragmatic to me.


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