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Pure Onsense

On Pragmatism

Scott Zuke

(Sept, 2011) Last October, as we were about to witness a strong showing by the Tea Party in the mid-term elections, I wrote a column about ideals. While the Tea Partiers had established themselves as a principled protest movement, they had not yet had the chance to govern directly, but rather only through the proxy of establishment Republicans who were courting or co-opting the movement for their own purposes. At the time, I predicted that the freshman Congressmen would quickly take a hardline stance on libertarian principles and make some highly public gestures before being pulled back closer in line with mainstream Republicans. But I was wrong. Instead, the storyline of the debt ceiling debate that dominated the summer news cycle was that the Republican party, suffering from severe internal fracturing, bowed to the Tea Party at a crucial time, dug in its heels, and refused to compromise with Democrats even after securing numerous significant concessions from them.

Republican presidential candidates took the occasion as a cue to campaign on their unwillingness to compromise. At one debate, when asked whether they would accept a deficit-reduction deal consisting of one dollar of tax increases to every ten dollars of government spending cutsóa virtually unimaginable slam-dunk of deal for any Republicanóevery candidate indicated they would turn it down. As several political commentators have noted, itís highly unlikely that any rational candidate would follow through with such a threat once elected, but the fact that the entire slate has resigned itself to a no-compromise campaign platform (and that almost all of them have been coerced into signing hand-tieing pledges to this effect) suggest that ideals are getting their moment in the sun.

Letís hope it doesnít last long.

It is difficult to make a compelling argument against staying true to oneís ideals, and for good reasons. Among the advantages of unwavering, principled behavior are predictability, consistency and accountability. When a leaderís actions are predictable, followers can develop a sense of trust and choose their own future actions based on reasonable expectations for what the leader will do or say. Consistency is the best way to avoid self-contradiction over the long term, which is important for maintaining credibility. And accountability is best established when the motivations behind a leaderís actions are well-known, consistent, and able to paint a coherent picture of a "worldview." When something goes wrong, then, itís easier to identify who caused the problem and to pose the question, "Is there something flawed in this worldview that would be cause for discarding it (And the leader who follows it)?"

However, while these advantages are likely implied by those who believe in uncompromising, principled leadership, it is more common for the holding of rigid principles and ideals to be valued directly as a personal virtue. Similar to the sentiment that having faith in general is as or more important than what one has faith in specifically, there are those who believe that having set principles is more important than what those principles are, what consequences they result in when put into action, or how dogmatic they turn out to be when challenged by opposing views.

And while itís difficult to argue against the idea that people should explore and develop their principles and then stick rigidly to them in their actions, I would argue that pragmatism is itself one such principle that is worth adopting.

Staunch ideologues view pragmatism as antithetical to being principled in oneís actions. A pragmatist, in their eyes, is one who has no higher ideals and no consistency in action, and who thus degrades into seeking personal advantage above all else. Itís similar to the view that some religious individuals have toward atheists: without a belief in a transcendent concept of justice, one could have no concept of right or wrong, and thus would turn to immoral, self-serving behavior. Neither belief is true, although there are always enough anecdotes on hand to keep them alive.

For the anti-pragmatists, all the proof they require resides in the US Congress, where self-interest does indeed drive many politicians to value reelection above more noble goals like serving the public interest honestly and directly. The Tea Party is understandably frustrated by representatives who claim to adhere to a certain set of values, but whose actions contradict them and are designed primarily with regard to political strategy. Still, it is a mistake to take such examples as proof of a defect in pragmatism, which is something very different from a total lack of scruples or guiding ideals. The word "compromise" is similarly vilified by Tea Partiers. To them, there is no difference between "one who compromises" and "one who has compromised his or her values."

What are the proper roles of pragmatism and compromise in politics? To me, the pragmatic virtue is demonstrated by those who come to the negotiation table realizing that the problem being addressed is a shared one, and that choosing from among a variety of proposed solutions is not a zero-sum prospectówinner taking all. Compromise doesnít mean that one side is consenting to the wisdom of the other sideís views, but rather just recognizing that there is another side with enough support that it deserves input.

Ideals have an important role to play in shaping public opinion, giving new life to aging but still important ideas, and energizing citizens who have fallen into political apathy. The Tea Party movement, I still believe, was a positive development for American civic engagement, and has successfully influenced political discourse. The process of governing, however, requires an amount of cooperation and compromise that respects plurality in a large, dynamic society. As long as unflinching adherence to set ideals and unwillingness to compromise remain its trademark characteristics, the Tea Party will be unfit to govern directly. The movementís plummeting popularity following the debt ceiling debacle is the latest evidence of what Americans have always implicitly understood: you campaign on principles, but govern through pragmatism.

Read other article by Scott Zuke