At times, politics seems like a game of ideals to outsiders — more West Wing and less House of Cards. It seems like it ought to be, right? A place to take a stand, to boldly represent the people who voted for you, to make huge, concrete changes in society.
The truth about politics is that none of this is true. It is an extremely pragmatic field and one influenced by huge, complicated factors, but ideological purity tests aren’t a realistic fit for the world of politics. The left may be a big fan of them, and it’s one reason the left is so violently fractured, but they don’t function well. Politicians have to represent large areas with diverse populations and even as they balance the sometimes conflicting desires of their constituents, they’re also viewing the situation with cool calculation. How will they get reelected? Where is the money coming from? Which powerful figures are leaning on them?
It’s inspiring and exciting to see a politician break away from the pack and make a bold stand, don’t get me wrong. And such gestures can have tremendous value, as when Democrats staged a sit-in over gun control. They didn’t accomplish their goal, but at the same time, they highlighted the Republican resistance to even the most basic, common sense proposals designed to limit gun violence. When Democrats attempted to filibuster Gorsuch, they again were making an important point. I don’t want to belittle those moves.
But, and I realise this is bound to make me unpopular and will no doubt result in some hate mail, for the rest of us, especially those new to politics, it’s important to understand pragmatism and careful calculations. If you don’t, you will be perennially disappointed. More than that, you’ll be caught in the purity traps of political thought, whether you’re on the left or the right. Life is about compromise, and about trying to decide where boundaries lie for you personally. That means, sometimes, that you have to make decisions you don’t like, that your constituents don’t like.
Perhaps the first thing to understand about pragmatism is this: Change doesn’t happen all at once. I know it’s frustrating to hear that change is incremental over and over again, but people say it because it is true. Pushing the needle slowly works, because it constantly resets ‘normal’ and creates room to push ‘normal’ a little further. ‘Normal’ doesn’t start with universal single payer health care, or free college for everyone. It’s incremental.
And even the much-vaunted plans that get floated now and then acknowledge this. Most ‘free college’ plans, for example, have significant loopholes and caveats, and they’re not truly free and universal. But they’re a good first step, laying the groundwork for expansion in the future. Looking beyond headlines and talking points can reveal a very different story when it comes to proposals like these, showing that while some may sound radical, they’re actually incremental just like everyone else’s.
Think about it in reverse, how the right has cleverly taken the tack of slowly but steadily rolling back civil rights. They knew that they couldn’t go from A to F overnight, but they could go from A to B, and then slowly to C, and so on. They understood precisely how quickly they could move as they slowly trained the American public to accept gross violations as normal.
I’m really not trying to be patronising here. I used to be a political purist and I would hotly insist that politicians should ‘stand up for values’ and so forth. I fervently believed that it was all or nothing, that half measures were a pathetic attempt at catering to mediocre moderates and they would only dilute the final product. I believed these things because I absorbed them, but the longer I lived and worked in the world, and the more I interacted with political systems, the more I understood that they weren’t realistic, and weren’t functionally possible.
Lots of people don’t like Secretary Clinton, for a variety of reasons, and I’m not here to relitigate the primary or the election. But I do note that many people said she wasn’t bold and visionary enough. It’s because she’s a pragmatist, and even her quite radical plans were presented modestly. She had a very good sense of what she could accomplish and she didn’t try to overpromise. Sometimes she kept things quiet because, yes, she wanted to appeal to moderates. It apparently worked, judging from her unprecedented popular vote count. Yet people were so ready to hate her on all fronts that they used her pragmatism against her, refusing to acknowledge that she was telling simple truths, and was focused on honing a campaign she could deliver on.
Visionaries with bold promises and striking rhetoric and dramatic floor speeches are nice, but what do they accomplish? Sometimes a lot — and often through pragmatism and collaborating with colleagues to accomplish goals of mutual interest. The stories behind their accomplishments, and the compromises they had to make, often get left out of the discussion, even when they’re out there for everyone to see.
Life is a world of compromise, and politics are no different. So take a closer look at your idealistic firebrands, because you will find cracks in the facade. And take a second look at boring, pragmatic politicians, because you might be surprised by what you find when you delve into their plans and communications strategies. There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic, but it’s telling that society thinks it should be viewed as a liability.
Image: Blood and Gold, Keith, Flickr