Saturday, September 22, 2012

The work of a pragmatic progressive

I align myself these days with folks who call themselves "pragmatic progressives." At times I'll use the label "Democrat," but if truth be told - that's more of a "not Republican" in todays climate than anything else.

Even as a progressive, I have pulled the lever for a Republican in the past. I think former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson has a lot to teach us about our current political situation. Republican Senator Mark Hatfield is one of this country's politicians that I admired most.

On the other hand, there is hardly a policy issue I'd find myself disagreeing with Senator Bernie Sanders about. Other than our current President, the national politician I have admired the most in my lifetime was Senator Paul Wellstone.

I say all that to put some context around what I mean by the word "pragmatic." It is first of all a refutation of the obstructionist politics of the Republicans these days...the attempt to block legislation that might improve people's lives simply to make a play for political power.

But its also a refutation of being wedded to ideology over what works. I tend to react to ideologues (ie, purists) the same way I react to the dogmatists of my christian fundamentalist past. In my experience, both approaches tend to value an idea (or ideal) over the opportunity to actually make a difference in real people's lives.

The thing I notice about both dogmatists and ideologues is that they tend to isolate themselves from the everyday struggles of human beings. Their world often seems to be insulated from the complexities of human suffering to the point that ideals can be contemplated without application to what is actually happening on the ground. In other words, they live in a bubble of privilege.

One of my favorite examples on the right of how this broke down is Dick Cheney's embrace of marriage equality. That's a perfect example of how the real world of having a lesbian daughter actually broke through dogmatism. When you come fact-to-face with how someone you love suffers as a result of dogmatism, it will sometimes break the hold that purity attempts to maintain.

On the left, this is also what many of us pragmatic progressives suggested was important to keep in mind when trying to pass health care reform. I believe it was Senator Sanders who suggested that the progressive alternative of single payer had a total of 8 votes in the Senate. In other words, it didn't have a prayer of passing. Meanwhile, millions of people were suffering in our current system. Only an ideologue would suggest that we simply allow that to continue while holding true to our preferred ideal.

The challenge for pragmatic progressives is - however - a difficult one. It means having to calibrate what is good enough for today and what we assign to the long-game struggle. You can imagine how a concept like "good enough" is anathema to the dogmatists and ideologues. It reeks of co-optation. I completely understand the concern. Examples of people/groups who abandoned their ideals in that process abound.

So I don't kid myself. There are pitfalls to this position of pragmatism. I believe those are mitigated by an ongoing connection to the very real struggles of everyday life. The minute we remove ourselves from that - either physically or emotionally - we are in danger of being co-opted. That's exactly why President Obama struggles so much with living in the D.C. bubble. It's an admonition that we should pay heed to as well.

Derrick Jensen said something very powerful about this in his book The Culture of Make Believe. He was talking about the similarity between corporations and hate groups. But I would posit that the same thing applies to dogmatists, ideologues and those who are co-opted away from their ideals.
He said, "They're cousins." I just listened. "Nobody talks about this," he said, "but they're branches from the same tree, different forms of the same cultural imperative..." 
"Which is?" 
"To rob the world of its subjectivity." 
"Wait - " I said. 
"Or to put this another way," he continued, " to turn everyone and everything into objects."
The minute the people/causes for which we advocate become objects, we've lost the battle. The alternative is to stay in touch - subjectively - with the struggle. That means feeling the pain but not getting lost in it to the point of cynicism or exploiting it for sentimental gain. That is the work of a pragmatic progressive.


  1. Wow, that IS a powerful observation about the moral necessity of subjectivity. Now I have yet another book on my reading list. Thanks Smartypants!

    1. I would suggest that Jensen's book is one of the hardest I've ever read. I had to put it down for months near the end because I got depressed - mostly from the way my world view was challenged by it.

      But in the end, that was a good thing and there are very few things I've read that changed me as much as that book did.

  2. 'Afternoon, Ms. Pants


    As sung in the intro to every chapter of the late, great Henry Hampton's MOST excellent documentary which gives the background to why, in many ways, we know each other and you're doing what you're doing (and, over-all, you summarize SOOO damn beautifully in the next to the last sentence of your piece)....

    "Keep Your Eyes On The PRIZE" (Ohhhh, Lo-o-orrhd).

    P.S. This - defined - pragmatist/purist - was the battle between Martin and Malcolm, by the bye.

    1. Who was the purist and who was the pragmatist between the two?


    2. Vic78 - Can't speak for Blackman, but I'd guess Martin as the pragmatist and Malcolm as the purist.

      Blackman - So glad you caught that next to last sentence. As I wrote it I thought...this one deserves a diary of its own.

    3. I would have to disagree with that assessment. They were both pragmatic. One was more successful than the other. Malcolm wanted to manipulate the system differently from the way Rustin and King did. He had a set of issues that King didn't have.


  3. Vic78

    I don't know how old you are. I do know that I see your comments on a number of the prag blogs and I always look forward to them.
    As I recall it - because Malcolm was killed during my sophomore year in high school and Malcolm my senior year - and this was all goin' down before Malcolm made his Hajj and he came to understand that there were white Muslims, Malcolm thought Martin the fool. He was quite the Black Nationalist (Elijah Muhammad was not a fan of black folk voting). "You been had. You been TOOK. You been bamBOOzled". These were phrases in his certainty re: black folk wanting to cooperate with whites with how whites were. And, I can go on quite a bit. Malcolm was most assuredly a purist and Martin was about as determined a pragmatist as there ever was. Now, after Malcolm made his Hajj and had his eyes opened re: that he wasn't, actually, practicing Islam and that Elijah Muhammad was, at the least, a very charismatic but deceitful man, yeah....he became MUCH more pragmatic. SUCH an interesting evolutionary path he was on before it was tragically cut short. Same for Martin.

    And, I assume that you're aware of, to this day, who Betty Shabazz believes was behind her husband's death?

    And, please, Ms. Pant...

    Do that diary.

  4. It always seemed a pragmatic approach to me (1980 Reagan/Carter) to cut spending AND cut taxes, but of course, Republicans never did that. They cut taxes only, which left us building multi-trillion dollar debts.
    One might think that Reagan leaving the nations first multi-trillion dollar debt Republicans might see the error of their policies, but no.
    Democrats have a responsibility to reform their programs to make them more efficient while serving the people. That's hard to focus on when they have to spend their time simply defending those programs from attempts by Republicans to eliminate those programs.
    Republicans rejected the pragmatic course Americans had backed for decades, to help Americans, and yes, pay more taxes to pay for those programs.
    The facts show those programs made American's lives MUCH better. That seems pragmatic, but no, Republicans spoke for the wealthy, not Americans.
    Then the "religious right" stepped in and backed policies that seemed against their (Jesus) philosophy of "we are our brothers keepers." One does not have to be religious to know we have a responsibility to all our people. Progressives at the time knew safety net programs would not only help people, but made a more secure and stable society. It worked. The future of an America where we deny the needs of our people brings us back to a more unstable and less secure society.
    These days Republicans seem like they are from another planet, but half America believes in (votes for) their policies despite the negative affects.
    The Republican party left me, I did not leave the Republican party.