The Strong Pragmatist

Pragmatists are often berated by political ideologues of all stripes as weak, unprincipled, unwilling to fight and compromisers - basically, as people who decide that a fight is lost before it even begins. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, the strength of pragmatism is the reason anything at all gets accomplished - whether you are talking about business, government, or personal relationships. To understand why, we must first stop letting extremists define pragmatism. Let's see what it really means, in terms of American philosophy.

Merriam-Webster defines pragmatism in this way:
: a practical approach to problems and affairs

: an American movement in philosophy founded by C. S. Peirce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief.
This is what pragmatists are all about. Practical solutions, and, at the very core, action. We don't simply theorize, we act. For liberal pragmatists, it means that our thoughts and our liberal-progressive principles inspire us to act to move our country forward from the status quo. We are guided by both our principles and a practical, grounded assessment of the current situation. In political situations, that means that we leave behind our colored glasses and assess legislative reality, assess the possibilities and act to make progress happen - even if it doesn't get us all the way there right away.

Yes, President Obama is a pragmatist who:
  • Passed health reform that presidents have been trying to get for more than a half century. Unlike others, he was not willing to see it sacrificed at the alter of ideological rangling and bickering. Because he and other progressive pragmatists acted, 32 million additional Americans will have health insurance, the worst insurance company abuses are becoming illegal, and publicly funded health care and health insurance are expanding.
  • Enacted the most sweeping banking reforms since the Great Depression and created the first ever agency dedicated to consumer protection.
  • Instituted credit card reform, student loan reform, women's pay equity legislation.
  • Repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
And so much more. Many of these were imperfect - in fact all of them were - but none of it would have happened without action guided by a clear view of the reality on the ground.

But Barack Obama is not the only pragmatist that has acted to make progress. Tip O'Neill took pragmatic action to save social security during Reagan's presidency:
[The bipartisan commission on Social Security] offered a compromise that has had lasting effects on Social Security politics and policies. Some of the proposals were less than ideal; one that was ultimately enacted into law raised the regressive payroll tax, which hit working- and middle-class Americans harder than wealthier citizens. Nonetheless, the 1983 agreement did succeed in extending the trust fund's solvency for a couple of generations by raising the retirement age to 67 from 65 (to be phased in by 2027); imposing a six-month delay in the cost-of-living adjustment; and requiring government employees to pay into Social Security for the first time. The compromise also cemented a new reigning political consensus on Social Security—Social Security, in historian Sean Wilentz's words, was "untouchable" because it had become more than ever the "'third rail' of national politics.

Reagan's Social Security Reform Act not only reversed his own ideological opposition to Social Security but also identified the nation's leading conservative as a defender of liberalism's most cherished achievement: "This bill demonstrates for all time our nation's ironclad commitment to Social Security," Reagan announced when he signed the bill. (For his part, Tip O'Neill called Reagan's action "a happy day for America.")
Because of this compromise, we saved Social Security, and you know that every time a conservative Republican puts up a straight face and says "Reagan saved Social Security," a part of them dies inside in the wish that he had not. Ideologues on the Left last December went after President Obama for reducing your (the employee portion) of the social security (payroll) tax. How much do you want to bet that the same people would assail the Reagan-O'Neill deal for raising the same?

The above is just recent history. We all know that Social Security (of 1935) itself started as a much smaller, limited program than it is today - yet, FDR's idealism did not stand in the way of his pragmatic leadership to enact this first step. At its inception, it did not include most professions attended by African Americans or other people of color. Dependent benefits weren't added till 1940. It did not include disability benefits until 1956. There was no cost-of-living adjustments to social security payments until 1972. (See a brief history of Social Security).

You know who else were pragmatists? Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Medicare was a result of pragmatic action. The truth is that starting in 1945, President Truman started advocating for and submitting legislation to cover all Americans under a single federally funded insurance program. The efforts died under President Eisenhower. Senator John F. Kennedy introduced a bill in the Senate that would look a lot like what Medicare is today - rather than the universal single payer coverage proposed by Truman. When campaigning for President, Kennedy described his bill in this way:
the bill provides that those who are on Social Security, working and contributing to Social Security, shall make a contribution so that when they are 65 years of age or older if they are men, or 62 if they are women, or over age 50 if they are totally disabled, they can receive assistance from the fund in paying their hospitalization, paying the cost of their examinations and drugs, and also receive some assistance in paying their general medical bills."
But even that bill did not become Medicare. What was passed into Medicare was a version that was even more of a compromise. How so?
The idea that women would qualify for Medicare at a younger age than men has never been part of Medicare. Coverage of prescription drugs under Medicare was very briefly available as part of the failed Catastrophic Medical Care bill of 1987, which was repealed within a year of enactment. Medicare coverage of the disabled was not added to the program until 1972.
So the Medicare that passed and was signed into law by the Professional Left's favorite arm-twister Lyndon Johnson did not include coverage for the disabled or prescription drug coverage - in fact there was no drug benefits at all until Medicare Part D in 2006, which, thanks to George Bush, left a huge gap in coverage as well as left the drug manufacturers free to charge what they want, and it was President Obama and his health care bill that extracted or 50% discount in brand name drugs (plus a 25% federal subsidy) under that program. If todays' Professional Leftists were around back then, they would more than likely call Medicare just as worthless as they tout health reform to be today.

The crowning liberal achievement of the 1960's, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, too only happened because of pragmatism, action guided by principle and grounded by realities, and you guessed it, there's that horrible word again, compromise. Don't tell anyone, but Robert Kennedy, the then Attorney General, himself appeared in front of the full House Judiciary Committee to urge the passage of a more - [insert jaw drops and gasps here] - moderate bill than one authorized by one of the subcommittees, because the Kennedy Administration was keenly aware of the Southern Democrats' opposition and the legislative reality.
The Kennedy administration apparently saw the correctness and the danger of the southern Democrats' reasoning. When the entire Judiciary Committee considered the subcommittee's draft of the bill, Attorney General Robert Kennedy appeared before the full committee in executive session in mid-October to urge that it report a more moderate bill. The Kennedy administration knew that a strong civil rights bill would be more difficult to pass because Republicans would find little in it to support. Republican support was absolutely crucial for Senate passage and only slightly less so for House passage. The administration's successful efforts to moderate the bill naturally aroused suspicion among some civil rights groups, but Kennedy probably had little choice: compromise or no bill.
OMG! That compromiser Robert Kennedy! He gave up even before the fight started!! Get him! As a result of all of this, the final piece of legislation that President Johnson signed in 1964 had these major qualities.
Title I
Barred unequal application of voter registration requirements, but did not abolish literacy tests sometimes used to disqualify African Americans and poor white voters.

Title II
Outlawed discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce; exempted private clubs without defining "private," thereby allowing a loophole.

Title III
Encouraged the desegregation of public schools and authorized the U. S. Attorney General to file suits to force desegregation, but did not authorize busing as a means to overcome segregation based on residence.

Title IV
Authorized but did not require withdrawal of federal funds from programs which practiced discrimination.

Title V
Outlawed discrimination in employment in any business exceeding twenty five people and creates an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission to review complaints, although it lacked meaningful enforcement powers.
It wasn't until 1970 that Congress abolished literacy tests all across the country. Busing did not become a reality until 1971. And look, there is still institutional racism in this country everywhere! Obviously, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a total failure. Oh, that piece of toothless, weak-kneed civil rights legislation and the weak, compromised, conservative-lite Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. How did the Democratic party ever survive the attacks that those two weak presidents brought on the values of the Democratic Party?!!!!!

Sarcasm aside, this is how big things begin, and this is how they get done. Similar history is in play for all of our major achievements throughout this country: whether it's the trade union movement (we did not just get a 40-hour work-week, overtime, paid time off all in one fell swoop), women's suffrage movement, the LGBT rights movement, or any other social justice or economic justice movements. Things get done because of a vision strengthened by principle and righteousness yet grounded and humbled by realities. Progress is a journey. It is a process.

I am a pragmatist. Because I care about getting things done. I am a strong pragmatist, because my vision is clear, and I have no illusions about the hard, harsh reality we face in order to affect positive, progressive change. Despite the image often painted of pragmatists by ideologues, it is the pragmatists who change the world, because we know change comes in steps. Pragmatists are the strongest advocates, because we do not give up. While we accept reality and work to make progress within the reality, at the same time, we continue our battle to shape the reality so that we can accomplish even better things in the future. Pragmatists are not about yelling and screaming and clawing at the chalkboard. We are in this for the long haul.

The weakness and the surrender is in refusing to accept partial progress with the excuse that it "isn't enough." Because that attitude only assists one thing: the status quo. Strength is about being able to accept the progress we can make now, and the indomitable spirit to build on it. We pragmatists are about action and principle. That is why we're strong.


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