The Ideology of Political Pragmatism

The further reaches of the political spectrum are often described as ‘ideological’. Whereas the center, on both the left and right sides, is described using terms like ‘practical’, ‘realist’, ‘bureaucratic’, and ‘pragmatic’.

We see evidence in how Bernie Sanders was contrasted with Hillary Clinton. The way that the two sides would critique the other highlight what I’ll call the ideological/realpolitik divide. Bernie supporters would criticize Clinton’s politics as stemming from an underlying centrist or neoliberal ideology. Clinton supporters would criticize Bernie’s policy proposals as impractical or unrealistic. In turn, Bernie supporters respond by defending the ideology. Clinton supporters defend the importance of implementable policies.

More recent debates have the same structure. For example, Nancy Pelosi’s hesitance to endorse Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, or impeachment gets criticized by leftists on ideological grounds, while Pelosi is defended—and the progressive policies are criticized—on pragmatic grounds.

Which side should you take? I think the matter is more complex than our political discourse tends to acknowledge. Yet my main claim is that political discourse, in a certain respect, is unable to acknowledge the complexity. (Note, then, that this whole article is in tension with its main claim.)

To start, although the ideology/realpolitik distinction does help divide the left into two distinct sociological factions, the distinction itself is not so clean. The leftist ideology on display through people like Bernie and AOC is taken up and defended with practical reasons. It is not solely ‘ideal theory’ or pure philosophy but the result of reckoning with moral harms.

For instance, when Bernie is asked philosophical questions about (democratic) socialism, he answers with concrete lists of injustices like income inequality, people without health insurance, and global warming. Of course, Clinton and Pelosi would not dispute the diagnoses. They see the problems too. So what matters is how Bernie moves from the claim that ‘millions of people are uninsured’ to the claim ‘We must pass a Medicare-for-all healthcare system’. Does ideology justify the leap?

I am always perplexed when I talk to self-proclaimed ‘real socialists’ who are staunch Bernie supporters. It is odd because Bernie Sanders is plainly not a socialist. It would be extremely easy to outflank him on the left. Where are the candidates who call for the nationalization of all production? The abolition of private property? Where are the communists? Why doesn’t Bernie support prison abolition, open borders, or…socialism? How do leftists justify supporting a candidate who doesn’t share their values?

The point is that, when we pan the camera out to see the left more broadly, Bernie and his supporters embrace a politics that shares far more with Pelosi’s Democratic Party than with the socialisms, communisms, and anarchisms further out on the spectrum. Many have noticed that ‘Social Democrat’ is a far more accurate label for Bernie than anything involving the term ‘socialist’. Bernie is a statist who wants to grow welfare programs within a society that remains, at least in the short and medium term, broadly capitalistic. Within a certain frame, he is a moderate.

When Bernie and his supporters are confronted with an ideology further to the left, what happens? They usually don’t dispute the ideology itself but list a number of tangible injustices. They say, “Yes, communism would be nice. But that isn’t going to happen right now and I’m not sure how we’d get there. So let’s fight for single payer healthcare in the meantime.”

The response is telling. What we find is an underlying ideology that looks like the following: “I am far to left at the level of ideal theory, but the moral atrocities I see all around me bring me to the level of realpolitik.” That is, the embrace of realpolitik is itself ideological. It is motivated by understandable moral concerns—the same ones, incidentally, that are listed as justification for the progressive ideologies. The ideology of realpolitik manifests in ideological critiques of those more moderate (like liberal Democrats) and pragmatic critiques of those more ideological (like communists and socialists).

Nevertheless, people further to the left will critique the pragmatism on ideological grounds as an unacceptable validation of inherently unjust institutions. Moderate leftists like Bernie might not disagree, but they would find the moral reality too dire to ignore. So they drag the critique to the level of realpolitik.

Now let’s zoom the camera back inside the Overton window. There we find that many disagreements within the Democratic Party have the same structure. When Pelosi and other liberals are confronted with an ideology further to the left, they usually don’t dispute the ideology outright but list a number of tangible injustices and political realities. Their pragmatism is motivated by a similar moral conviction to the one that motivates Bernie’s pragmatism. What has changed is the relative positions of the factions on the political spectrum. When we zoomed out, Bernie was the moderate realist (and a more moderate ideologue). Now he is the ideological leftist. And if we wanted to shift the frame again, Clinton or Pelosi would seem like ideological leftists when contrasted with someone like Joe Manchin.

So when we understand both the Bernie left and the Pelosi liberalism as moderate, we can charitably understand the moderating ideology as a sort of realpolitik—a willingness to sacrifice an ideal policy for the sake of addressing urgent moral problems. Here is where we must be careful. In one respect, an ideological critique misfires: the moderates are motivated by a moral conviction. In fact, opening oneself to legitimate moral critique in order to help those in immediate need can be seen as laudable. The critics don’t (and cannot) acknowledge that the moderates are operating on the realpolitik level. However, in the other respect, the critique is strong: there is an ideology of realpolitik, and it must be accepted by the moderate, whether that is Bernie or Pelosi. And such an ideology is, in a sense, a rejection of a purer, ideal leftist ideology.

Here is the idea: to become a moderate is not to reject the leftist ideology directly. It is to accept the ideology of realpolitik, which entails an indirect rejection of the leftist ideology. Depending on the context, this describes both Bernie and Pelosi/Clinton.

Now, a Bernie supporter is sure to have an objection. What happens when the moderates defend their ideology in ideological terms? It certainly happens. The relative leftists would point to this as evidence that moral concern is not the motivating factor. The moderates are centrists in their bones. They don’t actually care about leftist values. They share so many characteristics with the right that we might as well call them both equally bad.

But here we find the same complicated ambiguity. The defense of centrism or liberalism can itself be understood as a pragmatic act. Indeed, it must always be understood in this way. To the moderate, their defense of their ideology might be perceived to help in passing a liberal policy or winning an election. (They might be wrong, but it was still a pragmatic calculation.) The pragmatist is dragging everything to the level of realpolitik, including the discussion about ideology. And they are doing so on the basis of an ideology of moral concern.

Since all active political figures on the left are moderates relative to another leftist ideology, we see them all do this. You might even do it yourself—perhaps in your reaction to this piece. Once a Bernie supporter starts to defend the social democratic ideology against the critiques of a socialist, the same dynamic takes over.

I’ve described a complicated picture of the Democratic party. It is complicated because the ideology/realpolitik distinction is complicated. We can explore it more when we consider more objections to my claims. Since what I have said isn’t the standard denouncement of Democrats like Pelosi and Clinton as neoliberal, capitalist, racist imperialists, I am likely to be denounced in the same terms. So I will end by testing some implications of my claims.

For instance, perhaps surprisingly, I encourage the criticism of the Democratic Party from the left. I also encourage the criticism of more progressive Democrats, like Bernie and AOC, from the left. What interests me is the political nature of the criticisms. They exist as events in the world and make an impact on policies and platforms. They affect the opinions of the electorate and hence the results of elections. That is to say, ideological criticisms of ideologies exist at the level of realpolitik. They are practical realities.

The reverse is also true. It will always be coherent to criticize relatively moderate political positions, progressive or liberal, because the positions must be depicted as stemming from an ideology. And for pragmatic reasons, the ideology must be presented as genuine. Paradoxically, this means that, for pragmatic reasons, the ideology cannot be depicted as a pragmatic tool. As a result, the ideology is left open to ideological criticism. The criticisms will be especially compelling because they will be based on the same moral realities that justified the moderate pragmatism in the first place! So I don’t dispute the claim that Pelosi or Clinton are centrists. The claim leaves open the exact nature of the centrism and the claim itself. As I hope to have shown, understanding their nature is a tricky affair.

If you’re persuaded by my analysis, it might be tempting to conclude that the different factions of the left should tolerate each other. The relative left is there to push the party ideology left and the relative centrist left is there to find ways to implement policies (depending on the framing, Bernie could belong to both factions, hence the word ‘relative’). But that is partially a mistake. The conclusion undermines itself. Tolerance would prevent the factions from doing their jobs. The disagreements are practical realities. Tolerance is a political act whose nature is, again, a tricky affair.

The conclusion to draw is that arguments on the left exist within a multi-layered structure that is always self-reflexive. The ideological is pragmatic. The pragmatic is ideological. The ideology of pragmatism is pragmatic. The pragmatism of ideology is ideological. And so on.logo-yellow

2 thoughts on “The Ideology of Political Pragmatism”

  1. […] thinkers have entertained similar issues. I first approached the question in “The Ideology of Political Pragmatism.” The Vim can be interpreted as the attempt to achieve some form of political self-awareness. But […]


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