Pragmatism of Ideas vs. Pragmatism of People

It’s easy to stand in awe of the status quo. But is defending it truly pragmatic?

The concept of “pragmatism” might seem foreign to those with only a passing interest in politics, but it’s weaponized in political discourse for justification of deleterious policies under a faux, miscalibrated idea of “centrism.” However, as it’s used almost exclusively today, pragmatism detrimentally focuses on people — politicians, mostly — rather than the ideas themselves.

Pragmatism of People is essentially reframing the meme of “voting for the lesser of two evils” by using taking this rampant bug in our political code and marketing it as “good.” One phrase I’ve heard a lot is “tough choices.” All of the horrible decisions politicians have made that threw people under a bus were necessary, you see! It was the only thing that was “practical” — even when ideas are extremely unpopular in polls.

This goes hand-in-hand with another concept used heavily in capitalist politics: cultivated identities. The goal of corporate media is to encourage you to identify heavily with politicians much as you would any other piece of media. The same passion and patterns of thinking that provokes people to write a treatise on why Daenerys is actually a villain is the same as those who will endlessly defend Hillary Clinton’s honor. Just as Game of Thrones is fantasy escapism from your dissatisfactions of your life, you too fantasize about yourself in the shoes of your favorite politician. Attacks on them are then seen as attacks on yourself.

By coupling the intense passion of cultivated identity with the supposedly “difficult choices” a “pragmatic” centrist has to make, you not just manufacture consent for injustice, you manufacture enthusiasm for it. Something like the Fight for 15 or Medicare-for-All is then seen as too unrealistic by people who try to fashion themselves as “liberal” or “progressive.” When Hillary Clinton said that single payer will, “never, ever happen,” her words were more than mere words. They communicated to those with a cultivated identity built around her “progressiveness” to ironically fight with intensity against progress.

An old Zen proverb states, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The band AWOLNATION riffed on similar ideas with their song “Kill Your Heroes.” These, of course, are not calls to violence but are meant to be understood metaphorically. It’s a recognition that if you’re expecting someone to be your guide to enlightenment, it will only lead you into darkness.

For the idea of pragmatism to be truly beneficial, it must be built on ideas rather than people. Pragmatism in this case seeks to look at how successful ideas are in practical application. This divorces it from the current Overton window and political personalities and instead seeks to understand what is practical on a broader level.

Our healthcare costs are out of control in this country. Every other developed nation has implemented some kind of heavily socialized medicine. Though taxes may rise, the vast majority of people will wind up saving money, because it helps limit and spread out the cost of healthcare. Pragmatism of People says that this is too unrealistic. Pragmatism of Ideas says that this is the only thing that is realistic.

Rather than focusing on individuals and doing whatever it takes to keep them in power, consequences of their decisions be damned, instead Pragmatism of Ideas focuses on which ideas are practical and effective and then pursues them without regard to what individual’s political careers might be affected.

The 2016 Democratic Primary was, effectively, a war between Pragmatism of People and Pragmatism of Ideas. That’s not too say that cultivated identity around Bernie Sanders does not exist — it absolutely does. However, under any reasonable Overton window, Bernie is a moderate. His ideas aren’t radical or revolutionary. Rather, they are tried and true ideas successfully implemented in various places worldwide: they’re practical.

Of course, what is practical goes far beyond merely the sort of politics Bernie espouses. Our world is becoming increasingly automated. Scarcity is exaggerated by capitalism as a form of control. Post-scarcity in a lot of core areas like housing and many food staples is readily attainable. Post-scarcity across the board will be possible within decades if we can dismantle the veil of false scarcity created by capitalism.

This isn’t to say you can’t have favorite politicians. However, pragmatism aside, we need to reverse the flow of our political thought. Rather than “x supports y, therefore y must be good,” we need to make it “y is good, who supports it and can help make it happen?” For the needs of all people to be met, we cannot continue to elevate a select few beyond the status of criticism. This not only applies to politicians, but all people holding power, such as celebrities.

The system we have now is anything but pragmatic. In some twisted sense, it might be “pragmatic” to preserve the status quo through the lens Pragmatism of People, but it’s time to kill our heroes, kill the Buddha, and reject the validity of this idea of pragmatism entirely. The careers of people need to be entirely secondary to the quality of their ideas.