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Whatever Happened to Pragmatism?
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We complain about a two-party system that’s stuck in ideological ditches, but somehow it never occurs to us to embrace pragmatism, the uniquely American philosophy that was created as a reaction to ideological stagnation. Unless Republicans and Democrats getting madder at each other suddenly starts working, maybe it’s time to give pragmatism a chance.
When I was a child, I used to say that Ben Franklin invented electricity. My mother, ever patient, would remind me that he discovered it, not invented it. So maybe that’s how we should talk about the American thinkers who came up with pragmatism as a philosophy. Maybe William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey didn’t invent pragmatism. Maybe they just discovered it. Either way, before then we didn’t have a way to describe thinking as a problem-solving tool.
That was back in the 1870s when they were still getting over the Civil War, which was truly a conflict of ideologies. In that case, it was abolition versus white supremacy. These ideas could not coexist, contributing to the inevitability of the war.
I’m not saying James, Peirce, Dewey, and other leading intellectuals of the day such as Oliver Wendell Holmes sat down after the Civil War and said, “Well, that was stupid. How do we avoid that in the future?” But the post-war period fermented an explosion of ideas in the United States and Europe. That’s when we came up with the scientific method, with psychology, political sociology, a legal education based on case studies, and Darwinism.
Pragmatism was created in this kitchen. Suddenly, we understood that we could direct our minds to solve problems and not merely reflect reality.
This golden age of American thinking continued until the middle of the 20th Century, when once again we went to war along ideological lines, first against fascism, then against Communism.
We’re still fighting an ideological war, except this time we’re fighting against our own countrymen once again. We have chosen up sides in this cold civil war -- North versus South, Democrats versus Republicans. Inevitably, Congress has retreated into ideological trenches, prioritizing party purity above getting anything done. We’re stuck in a negative cycle of crisis management, conducting the basic affairs of government only under the threat of catastrophe.
It’s gotten so bad that people don’t realize that partisanship only recently became synonymous with ideology. Almost a half century ago, Democrats and Republicans voted with their parties seven out of 10 times. In the 1990s, party loyalty increased, but there were still conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, and getting stuff done was more important than avoiding a primary challenge.
Not any more. Congress is now more ideologically polarized than any time in our country’s history. Democrats can accurately point out that Republicans are more ideologically rigid than they are, but only by 2.5 percent. Put another way, when Bill Clinton was first elected, Democrats in Congress voted along party lines 86 percent of the time. Now that figure is 91 percent. The problem is real, and there are no good guys.
Many smart people have looked at this problem and diagnosed America with a bad case of galloping partisanship, but I think the problem is that our parties have ideologically segregated themselves.
Partisan politics worked in the past when it wasn’t merely an expression of distilled ideologies. But with party switching, primary challenges, and redistricting, there are no longer any politicians on the figurative common ground. That’s where you get shot. It’s safe in the trenches, but you don’t make progress when you’re hunkered down.
This can change, but only if we have leaders who can embrace that great American invention, pragmatism. Pick any policy debate we’re stuck on-education, taxation, national security-and you’ll see both sides guided by their principals. They repeat beliefs founded in ideologies instead of proposing solutions grounded in evidence. No wonder nothing happens.
The first side to embrace pragmatism will find a willing and grateful public. All Congress has to lose is their record-low approval ratings. Who knows? If pragmatism catches on in Washington, maybe Congress will become more popular than root canals, cockroaches, and traffic jams.
I know - dream big.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford