Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Pragmatism: what it isn't, what it is

At the bloggers' gathering in Waterloo this past summer, I had an interesting discussion with one of the other attendees about the NDP. He'd previously been a New Democrat himself, but had recently turned to the Green Party because he felt that the NDP under Jack Layton had become "too pragmatic" (which he said like it was a dirty word). This had my attention immediately--I mean, turning away from the NDP is one thing, but dissing pragmatism? Them's fighting words!

Inspired by my fine Ontario friend, then (albeit a few months late), here's my perspective on some common Canadian misunderstandings of what pragmatism is, followed by my thoughts on what it actually is.

Pragmatism is NOT political expediency. Doing whatever it takes to get elected is about a lust for power, not about finding practical solutions to society's ills.

Pragmatism is NOT a lack of ideology. If you don't know what you stand for, where does your search for solutions even begin?

Pragmatism is NOT cynicism. The scornful negativity of cynicism may be currently in vogue, but it's hardly a tried and true way of successfully solving problems.

Pragmatism is NOT centrism. This one is going to be especially hard for Canadians, I suspect, but it's true--not all centrists are pragmatists, and not all pragmatists are centrists. And there are many pragmatic solutions to problems that don't fall at the midpoint on a left-right continuum.

What pragmatism actually is, then, is choosing solutions to policy problems based on what has been shown to work in your own jurisdiction, or in another province or country with similar circumstances. The initial search for solutions will, of course, be driven by ideology, so that someone from the left might latch onto trying to solve the problem of homelessness, while someone from the right will tend to latch onto trying to solve the problem of wasteful government spending. If both are pragmatists, though, then they won't simply be looking for justifications for the solution their ideology is pushing them toward; they'll be examining a whole series of different things that have been tried in the past and evaluating those attempts in terms of how well policy goals were met.

The principles of pragmatism go something like this: your ideals drive your search for solutions, and in the process of that search you look not only in your own backyard, but beyond your ordinary horizons. But if no existing solutions can be found that conform to your own ideals, you turn to the next best thing rather than either a) promoting ideals with no good solutions or b) creating something new that hasn't yet been tested. A pragmatist's ideology can actually be quite radical in one direction or another, but the difference between the pragmatist and the pure ideologue is that in the cases where the pragmatist's ideology turns out to be consistent only with solutions that haven't been shown to work in the past (or ones that haven't yet tested in real-life situations), he or she will reluctantly promote tried-and-true solutions that aren't entirely consistent with that ideology.

It's an empirical philosophy, and a cautious one, and it sees ideology as a flashlight rather than as a homing beacon. It suits me.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for that article. How refreshing it is to hear a pragmatic leftist!

Northern BC Dipper said...

I tend to find that many people I know confuse the term pragmatist with opportunist.

They are two very different things, and I think this post does a good job at clarifying what being a pragmatist is.

CT said...

Well said. Your story about the Dipper-turned-Green is surprising to me, however, since your definition of the good kind of pragmatism is exactly what attracted me to the Green party.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Based on what he was saying, I suspect he was labouring under the first misconception I mention here--thinking that pragmatism is about doing and saying any old thing to get elected, regardless of whether or not they believe that. I disagree that the NDP is doing that, but that's the perspective he was arguing from.

I actually find the current incarnation of the federal NDP quite appealing on true pragmatist grounds these days. Not that other things (like political expediency) don't contribute to which issues they choose to underline when, but if you look at the way the party explains why their particular policy ideas are good, there's always an element of "this policy works, and here's the evidence for that" in addition to "this is the right thing to do." And the more they use that kind of argumentation for specific policies, the more convincing people like me tend to find it.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, the NDP have not seduced me into voting for them in the upcoming Ontario provincial elections in October. Further, my riding's NDP candidate and NDP leader Howard Hampton have failed to impress me.

So for the first time in my life, I'm considering voting Green. Will it be a lost vote in my riding? Absolutely (I don't think provincial parties get monies for each vote cast, like in federal elections). The provincial riding of Willowdale has traditionally voted chiefly for Liberal or Conservative candidates. However, I've also been faced with the challenge of deciding whether to vote Liberal, so as to keep the Conservatives out of my riding. This, even though I'm not happy with the Liberal government's results.

October 10th is going to be an interesting day for Ontario.

One thing's for sure: I'll be voting for mixed-member proportional representation.

laura k said...

Thank you for this excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Amazing post, one that has stuck with me all weekend. Immediately came to mind as I was reading this essay by Michael Lind, which, appropriately enough, contains the following passage:

"Realism in the sense of pragmatism is obviously desirable. Any public philosophy or strategy can be implemented in a pragmatic rather than reckless and utopian way. There can be, and have been, pragmatic liberal internationalists, pragmatic Marxist-Leninists and even pragmatic jihadists. Their pragmatism has not made them Kissingerian realists. Woodrow Wilson may have been a utopian and reckless liberal internationalist, but his successor Franklin D Roosevelt was a pragmatic, cautious and sober one."

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Oh, wow. Yeah, that's exactly what I mean, right there. Definitely an article to save. Thanks.

KevinG said...

Pragmatism is NOT political expediency. Doing whatever it takes to get elected is about a lust for power, not about finding practical solutions to society's ills.

A great post. I agree with most of it and certainly with the sentiment.

I think the statement that pragmatism is not political expediency is a overly broad though. Political expediency is a tool for giving pragmatic solutions a fighting chance at seeing the light of day.

I think we can use your own definition of what pragmatism is to show that political expediency is pragmatic. If pragmatism includes "examining a whole series of different things that have been tried in the past and evaluating those attempts in terms of how well" the goals ( ie implementation ) are met then political expediency is a pragmatic process by definition because political expediency has a reasonable track record of success.

Another facet of this might be the ( paraphrased ) guidleines of John F Kennedy: will it work, will it help, will it pass. If you can't pass it, it hardly matters how "good" the solution is or what amount of intellectual honesty was used to create it. Perhaps a little intellectual dishonesty ( saying what is required to get elected ) is a component of pragmatism as well ... but probably not your brand of pragmatism :)

I think Harper's giant policy step towards the centre is an example of pragmatism as it applies to the process of policy implementation. He tried for years to effect change through ideological argument and got more or less nowhere. He recognized that if he wanted some of his policies to see the light of day he would have to be more pragmatic in the policy positions he put up as the public face of the party. Whether he can turn the trick like Chretien did remains to be seen.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Sorry--can't buy it.

A public servant's purpose is just that--to serve the public. That's the goal, and the pragmatic solutions he or she seeks need to have to do with that goal. When you turn the goal into "getting elected so that your policies have a chance of seeing the light of day," then sure, political expediency absolutely becomes a way of meeting that new goal. But at the same time, you trivialize the purpose of a public servant to the point of ridiculousness.

It's also a complete fallacy (one shared by all of the big three Canadian political parties at this point, much to my chagrin) that you have to be in government for your ideas to "have a fighting chance." If you're a small party and have enough elected representatives that you get to present your ideas to the public, and those ideas are both appealing and workable, they will either be stolen outright by the governing party or, at the very least, they will change the quality of the debate around which kinds of solutions are possible. Heck, the Greens have managed this with no elected representatives at all!

Also, I think it's empirically demonstrable that when your search for pragmatic solutions is governed not by true convictions but merely by political expediency, the quality of the ideas suffers. When it's all about political expediency, you get the United States, where only an incredibly narrow range of policy possibilities gets aired in the fight for the mushy middle. I have more hope for Canada than that. And because you're a Liberal, I'll mention this, too: I have to say that I am incredibly struck by the number of Liberal blogs that in the wake of Outremont said "we need to go back to the drawing board and figure out what we stand for beyond defeating Harper." My response to that is that if you don't know what you stand for, you might as well give up the ghost right now, because you've lost the entire point of being public servants in the first place.

I also completely disagree with you about the supposed "pragmatism" Harper's step to the centre. From where I sit, he's cynically gambled away his ideology to achieve power. And sure, he got his power, but the price was that the very ideas that moved him to serve the public in the first place stopped getting a hearing, and now there's no one at all to represent those ideas. I'm a lefty, so this is is just fine with me, of course, but all you have to do is talk to a true conservative about Harper to realize that something got lost along the way. Now, you can argue (as I'm sure he does) that this is all about "incremental change" and once he's been in power for long enough he'll be able to gradually turn up the temperature without the frog jumping out of the pot. But that's a huge gamble, and in the meantime there's a sizable part of the Canadian electorate that absolutely no one is representing. If I were a conservative, I wouldn't call that part of a search for pragmatic solutions driven by my ideologies. I'd call it "selling out."

KevinG said...

This is why you get a double barreled name and I don't :)

As you probably know, I'm a liberal but not always a Liberal so the fact that the Liberals forgot to do the rebuilding and rethinking before they got excited about the winning is neither a surprise nor a bother.

In fact, if the election was held today, I'd probably vote for the liberals with the blue label. That doesn't demonstrate my pragmatism but it might demonstrate the efficacy of Harper's.