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Towards a Politics of Pragmatism: The Compassionate Middle Way

We need a “middle way.” Right now, polarization between social and political groups has our political system teetering on collapse. We are approaching a “tipping point.” As with any tipping point, we have two options: spiral into chaos (and eventually implode), or reorganize into a higher order. If we cling tighter to our social and political identities — Democrat/Republican, Pro-/Anti-Trump, White/Non-White — the chasm between us will continue to widen, leading to collapse. If instead, we can move beyond our identities and ideologies, we may be able to stabilize our system. The path of stabilization is the compassionate middle way.


The middle way values pragmatism as policy. It asks, What works best? What helps reduce the most suffering? It is not about adhering to Left or Right ideologies — it is about doing what works.

This approach is rooted in radical compassion. A compassionate politics recognizes our interconnectedness and common humanity. It implores us to see ourselves in our “enemies.” It challenges us to wish them happiness, too. It reminds us to respect their beliefs and value the wisdom they bring to the collective.

Photo by John Mccann on Unsplash

The collective psyche is always trying to balance itself out. Our “enemies’” belief system is holding a mirror to our own. It’s pointing out the flaws, gaps, and shortcomings of our own beliefs. We therefore must trust that the “other” side is presenting us with wisdom we are currently blind to.

A politics of pragmatism is based on the scientific method — it is not a politics guided by the ideologies of “science.” If we are truly interested in the evidence, we must let go of our ideological presuppositions that dictate our perceptions and behavior — including being “pro” or “anti” science. (The “pro” science team, through their behavior, can be just as anti-science as the “anti” science team. Once we attach to a belief it is hard to remain objective enough to change based on new evidence. See COVID-19 pandemic).

A politics of pragmatism makes hypotheses about what would most reduce human suffering, tests them, and adapts based on the outcome. In order to accomplish this, however, we must cultivate a compassionate mindset. We must be fluid in our belief systems. We must remember that the collective psyche, through the interconnected interplay of both sides, is always searching for the highest good.


How does this look in practice? Let me give a few examples.

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

Should we raise taxes, or lower them? Answer: we should be interested in what works. What helps lift the most people out of poverty? What leads to the greatest sense of fulfillment, meaning, and happiness? I have been a lifelong Democrat. I have always agreed with the Democrats’ approach to this issue because it seems more compassionate: raise taxes on the wealthy and give more to the poor. Welfare checks and food stamps seem like the obvious compassionate solution to helping those at the bottom. But what if something else works better? What if something else makes people happier? The conservative argument around limiting people’s motivation, or sense of meaning and purpose, through overly abundant government assistance is an important one to consider. I want people to be happy and fulfilled. I also want them to be successful. I don’t know which approach works better, but I am in favor of whichever one reduces suffering more. This is the pragmatic approach: we do something because it works — because it reduces suffering — not because it aligns with my ideology. Having this mindset could help decrease polarizing disagreements across groups.

Should we provide free universal healthcare? Again, for most of my life, I would say of course. This seems like the most compassionate thing to do. This is what the Democratic party is going for — compassion. And I believe the intentions are genuine. But what if this led to worse healthcare and more suffering? This problem is that we would still try to create and defend this policy even if it didn’t work as well. This is the problem with ideologies: they blind us to pragmatic action, to doing what actually works.

Is climate change “real,” and if so, what should we do about it? If 99% of scientists say climate change is “real,” I will go with that. Although I would be very interested to hear from the other 1% of scientists. We need to be receptive to hearing different viewpoints, and willing to incorporate new data. We don’t know what we don’t know. Climate change has become a political endeavor instead of a scientific one. This includes the question of “what we should do about it.” For example, there is data suggesting that cutting carbon emissions (as outlined in the Paris Climate Summit) will do little to no good. Instead, researchers suggest that investing in green energy research and development would be the most effective response. Yet, we cling to the Paris Agreement because it jives with our political ideology. The Copenhagen Consensus on Climate, which aims to identify the most pragmatic policy actions on climate change, writes, “Global warming is real; it is caused by man-made CO2 emissions, and we need to do something about it. But we don’t need action that makes us feel good. We need action that actually does good.” I think selling this pragmatic approach would appeal to the “Republican”/”Climate-Denier”/”Anti-Science” crowd, more so than calling them stupid, ignorant, or pretending they are unreachable. We have to trust there is wisdom on the other side. Perhaps this is how the collective psyche is alerting us to our blind spots, telling us that a more pragmatic solution is available. Even if this is not so, the best way to “persuade” the other side is to show up compassionately. If we listen and try to understand, versus shame and ignore, we have a much better chance of bridging the information divide.

The compassionate middle way recognizes our oneness. It helps us step out of ego. Doing this allows us to loosen our grip on our identities and ideologies. This, in turn, allows us to focus on pragmatism — on what works. The pragmatic approach further reinforces the transcendence of ego-bound identity and ideology. This is how we adapt and evolve to a higher level of order.



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Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.

Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.


Clinical Psychologist. Clinical Assistant Professor @ USC. Founder/CEO of The Middle Way. Writing on interconnectedness and compassion in self and society.