There seems to be a trend on several progressive websites to use the term “pragmatic” and “pragmatist” as a perjorative. It’s their shorthand way of lumping their opposition into a single category. They have their perfect solution, and any who are raising questions or objections are obviously not enlightened. Added into this is the veiled assertion that those who object are being paid by “special interests” to damage the cause. By bundling conservatives, Blue Dogs, “corporatists,” and others into a single term, they save all sorts of time that would otherwise be taken up by critical thinking.
The actual definition of pragmatic is:
- Practical, concerned with making decisions and actions that are useful in practice, not just theory
I’m pragmatic, and proud of it. I have ideals. But I’m not interested in some hazy “ideal solution” so much as I am in whether or not it’ll work, and whether it can be implemented. I recognize that progress is often a series of steps, not a giant leap. Nowhere has that difference been clearer than in the battle over healthcare reform. As the legislation started its way through the sausage-making process that all legislation goes through, various progressive groups (and those against them) lobbied hard. At first it was the dream – single-payer healthcare. That was obviously a non-starter almost immediately. While a number of people argued that it should continue to be pushed, as far as the House was concerned, it was not an option. Finally, as the battles went on, there was a sort-of “public option” in the final bill. This wasn’t terribly acceptable to the purists. Some Democratic representatives voted against the bill because it wasn’t single-payer. This, of course, made them wildly popular with some on the left. Then the process started again in the Senate, and once again the various people joined battle.
After all was said and done, there is now a bill waiting the final vote. Which is why the pragmatists are so vilified. Why? Because we’re the ones who are arguing for passing it. The purists want to either kill the bill outright, or start a process of arcane procedures and amendments which will have the same effect. What’s amazing to me is that these arguments are being made, and that they bear so little relation to reality. I asked a very simple question a few months ago, when the prevailing sentiment of the purists was to kill the bill: “What’s your next step if it is?” They couldn’t answer. The situation hasn’t gotten better since. As I said, I’m a pragmatist. That means that, whether I like it or not, I have to accept that there’s an end point to a battle. It’s not a war, it’s just a battle. The answer to the question of “is this better than nothing?” is “Yes!” It’s a start. History has shown that once you lay the foundation, you build on it – but you have to lay the foundation first!
The HCR battle is just one of many examples where I differ from the “purists.” It comes from experience. Having spent a lot of time over the course of my life in situations where “purity” often gets you nothing has made me pragmatic. I’ll work to get everything I can from a negotiation, I’ll do everything possible to achieve my goal. But I know there’s a point where continuing to push is fruitless. I’ll work the rules to my advantage, but I also know that I have to know the rules and work within them. Once I’ve gotten what I can for the moment, it’s time to close the deal. It’s not “defeat,” and it’s not defeatist to recognize that. I accept the reality of the situation – what is, not what I want it to be. Unfortunately the purists have a habit of working from what they want it to be.
Pragmatic is not a dirty word. It means someone who’s interested in what actually works, not what they think should work. The reality over the theory. In the long run, we tend to get more done because theory is not reality. Pragmatists are realists.