Friday, January 30, 2009

Pragmatic Politics

There are many people who resist labeling their political beliefs by insisting that they are merely pragmatic while everyone else is idealistic. They suppose that gives them an edge in political debates because unlike the ideologue they are simply being practical when they expound their own ideology.

It is a rhetorical tool used to sway the emotions, an attempt to make the opposition appear to be not grounded in reality. In most cases it amounts to little more than a trick. Sometimes those saying that their politics are simply pragmatism actually believe what they say, and that is when the discussion gets difficult.

Someone who actually has no ideology has nothing to say about politics. Someone without ideology is not only not liberal, conservative, or libertarian, that person is not moderate or middle of the road. Someone who actually has no ideology actually doesn't care one way or the other about the outcome of any political contest.

When confronted with that, most who try to avoid claiming no ideology say that is a mischaracterization and that they actually only care about what works.

The problem is how to define what works. What is it they want to accomplish? That will define what works. If the goal is to ensure inflation, increasing the money supply works. If the goal is to ensure greater unemployment, supporting the Employee Free Choice Act works.

What works depends on what goal. As Ayn Rand wrote, "practical" depends on what you want to practice.

What goal is ideology. Nobody who is pragmatic and practical lacks an ideology; everyone who claims to be pragmatic and practical is pragmatic and practical towards some particular goal. Someone with no ideology doesn't participate at all.

When others offer solutions for the recession that involve bailouts, and decry opposition to those solutions as "partisanship" or "ideology", throw the accusation back in their face. Their own ideology is what causes the pro-government solutions, not the lack of an ideology.


Anonymous said...

Interesting comments. But what if a person claiming to be pragmatic really does care about society and politics but only wants to solve problems without regard to any political ideology? Why does someone necessarily have to be a "liberal", "conservative", Libertarian, Green, Democrat or anything else? I guess I do not see your logic.

That logic is sort of like saying you cannot be a decent honorable person unless you are religious and derive your ethics from some God or another.

Ayn R. Key said...

That would be a very good way to deflect the accusation that the person actually has an ideology, but it is incorrect. What does the person under discussion care about society and politics? Does he want to make things better? Worse? How does he define better or worse?

You don't need to be in a named ideology to have an ideology. An ideology unique to you is still an ideology.

It is not the same as saying you have to believe in God to be a moral person. It is more like saying you need some sort of morals to be a moral person.

Anonymous said...

I do believe that people claiming to be pragmatic non-ideologues can (1) care about politics (2) have beliefs that are not clearly identified with any political party and (3) believe that they actually only care about what works. I know such people.

Your post asserted that "Someone who actually has no ideology actually doesn't care one way or the other about the outcome of any political contest." That was not true for those people in the elections, particularly in 2002 and later. They cared a lot, but were not backing either main party. They were simply looking for (1) the best that either party had to offer or (2) something better, if there was some better option (which there was not in their minds).

But maybe the bigger point is whether or not it is important that these people consider themselves to have any ideology or not. Why does it matter? Maybe true pragmatists have a political ideology called "pragmatism", whatever that is. That could lead to a "pro-government" (liberal Democratic?) solution, an "anti-government" (conservative Republican?) solution or something else entirely, depending on how a problem presented itself and what solutions may be available.

Why does it matter if that is called an ideology or not? And, if it is called an ideology, what would it be called? The "pragmatic ideology"? That seems to be in splitting hairs. The real goal for some real pragmatists is just to look honestly and reasonably at reality without bias from any pre-existing political ideology. For some of those people, their context or goal is to improve the efficiency of government and make average people more prosperous while not inflicting any more damage on our economy or environment than is necessary. What kind of political ideology is that? Does it even matter if that is called ideology? Those goals seem reasonable, regardless of what they are called or not called.

You argued that "Someone with no ideology doesn't participate at all." In my personal experience, there are some folks who have no ideology that I or they themselves can identify, but who do participate and do care. Those people themselves do not know what their ideology is. They just tend to be people fed up with the incompetence and corruption of politics as usual. They tend to see political ideology (Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green, Socialist, etc.) as blinding the believers to reality, which in their opinion, tends to make government actions less efficient and less honest. They simply do not care what that is or is not called.

Ayn R. Key said...

A personal ideology, not identified with any party, unique to the person holding it, is stll an ideology. That is where your counter-argument is failing.

m2k said...

David W. Minar describes six different ways in which the word "ideology" has been used:
1) As a collection of certain ideas with certain kinds of content, usually normative;
2) As the form or internal logical structure that ideas have within a set;
3) By the role in which ideas play in human-social interaction;
4) By the role that ideas play in the structure of an organization;
5) As meaning, whose purpose is persuasion; and
6)As the locus of social interaction, possibly.

For Willard A. Mullins, an ideology is composed of four basic characteristics:
1) it must have power over cognition
2) it must be capable of guiding one's evaluations;
3) it must provide guidance towards action;
4) and, as stated above, must be logically coherent.

That said, pragmatism really is its own ideology, but is unlike other ideologies because rather than having a base-value to launch ideas off of (this government intervention is inherently bad, government is inherently good), pragmatists go with what works best, period. Its a label to this idea. Things are valued "insofar as they work."

The criticism should come from the idea that it can be relativistic, since it values results rather than the "spawning" human values. Bertrand Russel valued his "analytic-humanist" ideology over the "pragmatic" ideology, while considering that both were the "anti-ideologies". (Chomsky's a fan of Russel, 'aynRkey')

To argue that the practice of 'submitting to the what is practical' is somehow ideologically equal to the way in which opinions and ideas are made is silly.

Ayn R. Key said...

m2k wrote...
pragmatists go with what works best, period.

Best toward achieving WHAT GOAL?

You make the same mistake as the anonymous critic. There's a practical way to achieve low unemployment, and a practical way to achieve high unemployment. How do you know which one to strive for? People will say 'duh, low, cause it's better', but WHY is it better and therefore the better choice and the goal to pragmatically strive for?

That can only be answered by an ideology, and the so-called pragmatists have to have one to have a goal to pragmatically strive for.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Your responses in the comments are fantastic as well. Found this article while researching why divided government isn't necessarily so bad at "getting things done".


Greg Carrier said...

Great post and comments. I am not sure why some of the critiques were written. It is almost as if they feel having an ideology would be a bad thing whereas without some well thought out reasoning for how things work whether it is similar to a particular party or not is the only way to make rational decisions come election time and not just vote based on a particular candidiates charisma or some misplaced irritiation with the current party in power, although I would submit the mushy middle ten percent do exactly that. Thanks,