In Defence of Ideology

by: Daniel De Groot

Mon Nov 24, 2008 at 22:39

There has been here, and elsewhere, a low-level (ahem) ideological debate about the relative importance of ideology versus pragmatism.  To some, the election of Obama is seen as a victory for getting things done as opposed to what I suppose in this formulation is the old Washington game of tilting at ideological windmills.  It's a theme I have seen frequently here in the comments, through the discussion on the merits of Obama's cabinet and other nominations so far.  I want to address the underlying fiction which claims there is some practical ideal route of policy that can eschew ideology itself.  Greenwald addressed this today, more specifically on pragmatism as foreign policy:

If one discards the need for ideology in favor of "pragmatism" and "competence" -- as so many people seem so eager to do -- then it's difficult to see how one could form any opinions about questions of this sort beyond a crude risk-benefit analysis (i.e., "pragmatism").  Are there military and economic benefits to be derived for the U.S. from invading Pakistan?  Bombing Iran?  Lending unquestioning support to Israel?  Escalating our occupation of Afghanistan?  Remaining indefinitely in Iraq and exploiting their resources?  Propping up dictators of all types?  Deposing Hugo Chavez?  Torturing suspected terrorists for information, or detaining them without process?  If so, then those who are heralding "pragmatism" as the supreme value -- or at least something that should trump "ideology" -- would have no real basis to oppose those actions.  It is only ideological beliefs that permit opposition to those polices even if they are "beneficial" to our "national self-interest."
Daniel De Groot :: In Defence of Ideology
His point here is a great one, that "pragmatism" as applied to foreign policy is little more than another term for realpolitik, the amoral pursuit of national power in a competitive and adversarial nation-state environment.  

There is another fundamental problem with the ideology of pragmatism (yes, "I hate ideology" is an ideology too!) - that can be expressed as a question:  What goals do these pragmatic policies advance?

At a conceptual level, ideology is a simply a heuristic for selecting the best path in problems without an obvious or easily discerned solution.   So you "guess."  You pick a method that, though not guaranteed to solve every problem, hopefully makes them no worse, and maybe leads to other desirable side-effects even if the core problem remains.  

Apart from politics, you might have a rule-of-thumb that says "always retrace your steps from yesterday evening" if you can't find your keys.  Others may "always search some list of locations consecutively."  There may be no single "correct" approach for every time you lose your keys.

When it comes to picking your political ideology, the decision (to the extent it is a conscious decision) will hinge on ethical and philosophical questions not relevant to car keys.  Nonetheless some of the same principles apply.  You pick, say, libertarianism, because you think it solves problems well, and provides an appealing approach to the large and intractable problems of "how to govern and organize humans."  Libertarianism won't just find your car keys, but brings the world closer to the ideal where it is impossible to lose keys because magic markets solved that problem somehow.  Ideology entails both a specific solution to a specific problem, but also a general approach to larger challenges.

Two people with differing ideologies will often find they have very different interpretations of the outcome of a policy (assuming they agree what the outcome was), because they desire different ends.  Conservatives like the Bush tax cuts because they got extra money.  Liberals dislike them because they helped grow the gaping income chasm between rich and poor.  This is not a "downside" to conservatives so even if they acknowledge the rich got more money, they will respond along the lines that these people worked hardest/smartest or that a vibrant wealthy class are creating jobs etc with their excess capital.  Forget the merits of these arguments, the point is to illustrate that these two ideologies cannot reach a "pragmatic" solution on taxation, since they do not agree on a fundamental level about what the tax system should be doing.  

It is possible to find areas of goal alignment between two ideologies.  If communist hordes are parachuting into town a la Red Dawn, liberals and conservatives will agree to "stop them."  More realistically, conservatives and liberals do generally agree (at least nominally) on some goals, like technological advancement or economic growth.  Even so, it is quite difficult to find specific policies that advance these goals which would be supported by both liberals and conservatives.  Sometimes this is because neither side agrees the others' approach will work on the problem at hand, but in others they will oppose it because it brings the system further from their vision of ideal.  Thus, liberals will oppose strategies for economic growth which harm the environment or disadvantage minorities.  

The point is not that pragmatic solutions should be reflexively opposed in favour of ideologically pure liberal approaches.  That is largely a myth of the bi-partisan beltway crowd who value civility over decency and believe in some magical era where all legislation passed unanimously.  Such problems are generally handled quickly and without rancor, because everyone already agrees with the solution at hand.  

Ideology is not a dirty word.  "Ideologue" may be, but they're not the same thing.  Without it, we are adrift in a sea of problems, without a compass or a destination in mind.  

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Great post (4.00 / 5)
Reading things like this calms me right down. I appreciate that you use words to mean what the dictionary says they mean, and not redefine them to conform with Obama's every nod and gesture.

The value of "Getting Things Done" is directly proportional to what it is you're trying to get done.

Here Is How I View the Difference (0.00 / 0)
Ideology begins with contemplation of the ideal and measures the value of a policy with respect to how it compares to that ideal.  Pragmatism begins with contemplation of the possible and measures the value of a policy with respect to how far it goes within the bounds of what is possible.  An example I could use is that the ideologue will say that x, y, and z need to be done and worry about funding later, but a pragmatist will set a budget first then decide how much of x, y, and z can be done within the budget.

It is, perhaps, a valid criticism to say that pragmatists too often view the realm of the possible as overly static and that ideologues too often think that the ideal is also possible.

I agree that ideology can be described as a heuristic.  As such, I much prefer being more contemplative and trying to come to a more well-thought-out solution.  On the other hand, being contemplative and pragmatic can lead to indecision when there is a lack (or an overload) of information or a lack of time/resources to process information.

Which perhaps means that I reject both the ideology of ideology and the ideology of "I hate ideology".  Or perhaps I think it is possible to be both.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

But to say that one is contemplating the possible (4.00 / 2)
is already an ideological statement, isn't it?  It's an evaluative, interpretive task through which one decides what ones sees as the limits.  Someone else might undertake that same task and come to a different conclusion about what constitutes the possible.

[ Parent ]
I have a hard time explaining this (0.00 / 0)
Perhaps I can do it best by prefacing that I have postmodern impulses.

I consider it necessary to understanding how the world works to realize that, given access to the same data, equally intelligent people are capable of coming to different conclusions.  I just don't feel the outrage that ideologues of both the left and the right seem to feel about disagreement, as if there is an objective and obvious black-and-white reality and anyone who doesn't perceive things the same way is either misled, naive, stupid, or malicious.  

This doesn't mean that ideology is useless.  As Daniel de Groot wrote, it is a heuristic and heuristics have their place.  My preference is for politicians who are flexible enough to function as both ideologues and non-ideologues.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

[ Parent ]
Bob Cesca posts on this topic today (0.00 / 0)'s important to clarify that ideology is meant to inform policy, while only blind ideologues allow it to entirely dictate policy. For example, the Bush administration agenda has been almost entirely dictated by neoconservative and far-right ideology, at the all-too-familiar expense of reasonable and rational policies.

Needless to say, I largely agree.  I consider ideology to be more like "orientation" - how you are oriented shapes the way you approach an issue, but what you actually do is based on those proverbial "facts on the ground."  Pragmatic folks are prone to choosing people with wide experience and competence, because - well, because that's the smart thing to do, especially when you're trying to drive the country out of a ditch.  But one's "orientation" will shape the way you approach the out of the ditch driving - if you go gradually through the path of least resistance, plow through, or whatever.


Visit the Obama Project

what could be more pragmatic (4.00 / 3)
...than knowing where you want to go?

It's all very well to get the car out of the ditch. It's all very well to have a good driver. But if I'm trying to get to Springfield Alaska and you're trying to get to Springfield Alabama, then maybe we should go in separate cars.  

[ Parent ]
You also need to know where you are starting from... (4.00 / 1)
To continue to abuse your example; both places mentioned in your example are North of Honduras and if we have limited resources it's still easier to cooperate with someone interested in going in the same direction.

[ Parent ]
agree completely (0.00 / 0)
thank you

[ Parent ]
"Ideology As Destination?" (0.00 / 0)
The "ideology-as-where-you-want-to-go" idea is another proof in Obama's favor.  Conservatives don't want to "go" anywhere.  The conservative ideal is to preserve and protect our best values.  The progressive idea is the one that involves "going" - toward a more perfect future. Sound familiar?  Obama's orientation is inherently progressive. (In fact, some of the more staunchly right commentary has centered around this very idea - resistence to the idea that America needs to improve, anger at Michelle for arguing that Barack is going to make us improve, disdain for Obama's claim that we can't drive whatever we want to drive, etc.  Anything that smacks of a progressive vision for the country is resisted by many on the right - because they don't envision any improvement necessary - they envision a return to a core).

But then again, sticking with the seemingly explicit meaning of your words, Obama has set a progressive agenda.  That's the destination - and that's what Obama supporters are arguing.   The agenda is set, and Obama is pooling a wide net of people to pursue it.  Moreover - he's ALWAYS promised to do so.


Visit the Obama Project

[ Parent ]
Conservatives do want to go somewhere, (4.00 / 1)
towards the rule of the elite. Liberals want to go to the opposite place.  

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Says you. (0.00 / 0)
I think that's an unfair framing.


Visit the Obama Project

[ Parent ]
No, it's really a quite basic understanding, and not mine alone. (4.00 / 1)
See here:

Until we understand what conservativism is, we are helpless to do anything about it.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
I don't think a research paper called (0.00 / 0)
What is Conservatism and What Is Wrong With It will be one that I'll take as gospel for defining conservatism.  I wouldn't accept such a document as a definition of liberalism or progressivism either.

As an independent, I'm making my assessment of conservatism and progressivism based upon what the proponents of each say about it themselves.


Visit the Obama Project

[ Parent ]
Well then (0.00 / 0)
you will continue to be snookered.

Suit yourself.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
different uses of the analogy (0.00 / 0)
When I talk about direction, I'm talking left and right -- as in  conservatives steer to the right.

The right, as it is commonly understood, is much like you say.

But in the driving analogy (as I was using it), it's a direction they want to move to, and most of us want to move away from.

[ Parent ]
Great Post. Also Wrong. (4.00 / 1)
You were correct to strike a difference between goals and means of achieving them.  But this sentence you highlighted shows the misstep:

Ideology entails both a specific solution to a specific problem, but also a general approach to larger challenges.

I agree with the sentence, but claim this is where ideology fails, because this is where pragmatism left behind.

Our goals come from our morals.  I'm liberal because I believe in equality and justice.  But those goals do not define a solution.  That is where pragmatism comes in.

Ideology is when you take the solutions others have come up with and apply them to new problems.  Ideology is where you start to believe the nature of the solution is more important the problem being solved.  Ideology itself is innately conservative because it trusts there is one true way.

Leave the ideology to help identify that which must be fixed, that which can be improved.  Leave ideology to matters of the heart.

But solve those problems with pragmatism and competence, not blind ideology.  Use the mind, not the heart, to solve the problem.  Then execute the plan.

Heart.  Mind.  Hand.

Problem.  Solution.  Execution.

Whoa (4.00 / 5)
"Ideology itself is innately conservative"

Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. That is simply an absurd statement. Utterly absurd and at odds with the way the term has been used. Ideology is inherently conservative? Balderdash. Hogwash. Nonsense.

Not to mention that it is a logical contradiction. If you are arguing that there is always more than one way to solve a problem, then there must also be multiple ways to solve the solving of problems, including finding only one way to solve problems.

You are wrong on this one Mark. Ideology is not inherently conservative. Not to mention that is itself an ideological statement.  

[ Parent ]
One True Way (0.00 / 0)
So do you think ideology does not claim there is "one true way"?  Or do you claim that isn't a basic tenet of conservatism?

Admittedly I'm going with the full capital "I" version of Ideology, lowercase  "c" version of conservative and I'm purposefully trying to put this into provocative wording, but I stand what I said.  

When you start confusing the problem with specific solutions, holding people to purity tests to make sure all solutions they propose mold to a particular form; yea that looks conservative to me.  What else does one call defending the one true faith?

Yes, there is a contradiction, there.  There is also a contradiction in being intolerant of intolerance.  The world works that way, sometimes.

[ Parent ]
Ideology (4.00 / 3)
No, ideology is not about there being "one true way." Ideology is simply a way of understanding the world. Everyone has one. Impossible to function without it.

Your definition of ideology as the belief in "one true path" is invented whole cloth. Never heard that one before.

[ Parent ]
Ok (0.00 / 0)
So you think those that have a different understanding of the world are equally correct?  All ideologies are the same and you just happen to be progressive?  I certainly didn't get that impression.

Just a way of understanding the world, eh?

1. the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.

Seems to be a bit more than just how one understands the world.

But to take it down out of the theoretical, the real point of both this post and my response is to compare and contrast ideology with pragmatism.  My point is limit the doctrine to the set of morals and body of problems we want to solve.  If you are saying that is all ideology is, then fine, but that isn't what this post claims nor the impression I've gotten from most of the recent posts related to Obama's cabinet.

Worse, we are hinting towards a rejection of pragmatism, which I'll fight even the smallest evidence of.

[ Parent ]
That is how you understand the world (4.00 / 3)
Maybe we are reading different definitions, but the one you point and quote out sure sounds like a way of understanding the world to me.

Ideology and pragmatism are not opposites. One can have a perfectly pragmatic means of attempting to support one's ideology. That the two concepts are pitted as opposites is both an ideological statement, and a lie perpetuated by some very powerful people who don't want to day they actually have different values than you.

[ Parent ]
Uncle (4.00 / 2)
I'm willing to concede this debate to you.  I admit I'm trying to be too clever with my wording.

But I stand by my main point and biggest concern.  We need to leave ideology at level of morality and identification of what problems need to be solved.  But we must be pragmatic beyond that point.  Too often I see people confuse solutions proposed by liberals to be used to define liberalism itself (single payer, impeachment, etc.) or solutions rejected not on pragmatic grounds, but because it isn't "progressive" (middle class tax cuts, for example.)

And I'm seeing too much dismissal of expertise and pragmatism.  I agree it is not the opposite of (when accepting your definition of) ideology.  It isn't the lies of others that concern me, though, it is the dismissal on this side.

[ Parent ]
the reason is because there are at least two different approaches to seeing social change (0.00 / 0)
for example, if you have single-payer, that's a far better goal for both financial rationality of the health care system (e.g. you remove the middle men) and also for establishing it as a public good (ideological).  Regardless of whether you're ideological or pragmatic, you should be able to agree one what results particular policies may have in the short, medium, or long term -  where they to be implemented - that't the analytical work.  And if you disagree with the analysis of single-payer - and i mean analysis, not analysis colored by ideology as so much american economic analysis is - then we should be able to have common terms on which to say yes i am correct or yes i am incorrect abotu the claims i'm making regardless of what i think about hte particular policies.

On the other hand, even if ou agree about what policy aims ou have, the way to GET there will be a subject of dispute (strategy).  one is "let's use the 9opportunity to get a substantial change done now" and the other is "let's incrementally move towards something but go along with the existsing structures."  This boiils down to an analysis of how you think political change WILL work in the future and is MUCH harder to do - you essnetially have to take into account as many structural features as posisble and understand personalities and all else and then come to an understanding of what your own personal belief is about hte efficacy of a particular strategy.  And when people do that, they will come to a different assessmenet - and that is an honest difference - people with shared underlying values (if only on a particular subject and to a greater rather than lesser extent) but who have different ideas about strategy.

[ Parent ]
"a lie perpetuated by some very powerful people" (0.00 / 0)
Hmm, Greenwald may be powerful, but our Daniel? I had no clue!
Ok,seriously now, both Greenwald and De Groot write here that pragmatism is an ideology. I understand you, like me, oppose this view?

[ Parent ]
I disagree (0.00 / 0)
The vast majority of the American electorate functions without a political ideology.  Or at least not a coherent and consistent one.  See the work of Philip Converse in political psychology, for example.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

[ Parent ]
I agree that they function without a coherent one (4.00 / 3)
But being coherent is not a requirement to wake up in the morning.

[ Parent ]
Imho they're just not conscious of their ideological beliefs. (4.00 / 1)
And, I'm not convinced that there is a political ideology that is really totally coherent and consistent. Just look at the conservative idea that fed rights are bad and state rights good. Why state rights? Why not community rights? What logical base can there be for preferring states? Is this coherent and consistent? Only if you start with artificially constructed premisses.

[ Parent ]
with conservativism (4.00 / 3)
It is particularly hard to do this kind of analysis, because there is a lot of subterfuge and dishonesty mixed in.  Rosenberg had a great quip he called "Rosenberg's postulate"

Conservatism is so deeply and complexly irrational that it is impossible to talk about conservatism in a rational manner.  This is directly parallel to Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem.  Whatever rational discourse one comes up with to talk about conservatism with, there will always be some contradictory statement that stands outside the rational framework, sticking its tounge out at you.

Tongue-in-cheek, yes, but not without a serious dollop of truth.  State's rights were always just an excuse for conservatives to do what they wanted without having to defend policies on the merits (ie segregation).  

[ Parent ]
Good point. However, liberalism has its fuzzy areas, too. (4.00 / 1)
As liberals, we defend civil liberties. But at the same time, we defend social security, a program that is mandatory. No liberty in it. Is this consistent? Not really, right?

So, I think no political ideology can ever be totally coherent. After all, it's always the point where the interests of the individual collide with those of the society that ideology can't provide any clear cut answers. How do you apply an objective value in order to weigh interests against each other? Impossible.

[ Parent ]
Liberal is shorthand (4.00 / 1)
It's not very good shorthand, either. Roosevelt picked the term because it lacked much American political baggage, but it's got connections to classical liberalism, which is essentially libertarian.

So we aren't that kind of liberals. Individual freedom matters, but so does making sure that everybody has enough to eat. Call that progressivism, call it social democracy, call it decency. But our labels are probably the least coherent parts of our ideologies, so basing an argument on them is weak.

Although obviously, that's a deeply unfair statement to make to somebody having this conversation in a language other than their mother tongue. Oops :p

Anyway, I wouldn't dispute that left-wing ideology can be incoherent (mine certainly is) but I'd question your example. We have an ideology based on several conflicting principles, and merely pick the best fit.

Forgotten Countries - a foreign policy-focused blog

[ Parent ]
One True Way (4.00 / 1)
The notion of a "one true way" is moral absolutism.  This not solely the property of conservatism.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

[ Parent ]
Like Mark said, "conservative" with small "c"! (0.00 / 0)
So, what he means is imho that one's ideology is resistant to change. You don't become a right winger just because you're dissatified with the results of one progressive policy, for instance. That kind of conservative (in the meaning of solid, slow moving) , not the political one.  

[ Parent ]
A $700 billion fiscal stimulus package, (4.00 / 1)
when coupled with a $7.4 trillion bailout to corporate interests, is not progressive policy.  Seems to be a point that many here are missing.

It shouldn't be ideology VERSUS pragmatism (0.00 / 0)
Imho that's a false alternative. Ideology defines the goals, pragmatism is the way to move towards them. Those are not opposites.

But actually this debate is about purism vs. pragmatism. Two different strategies. Well, and imho the lessons of history are clear on what is much more often the winning strategy...  

I disagree (0.00 / 0)
I just don't think this debate is about purism vs. pragmatism.

In fact, it seems me that both terms are used by one side of the debate.

I'm on the side described as purist, but I feel I'm quite pragmatic.

The doctrine that an idea can be understood in terms of its practical consequences; hence, the assessment of the truth or validity of a concept or hypothesis according to the rightness or usefulness of its practical consequences.


Obama's votes, his endorsements, his appointments -- those are concrete, actual things with concrete, actual consequences. They're neither rhetoric nor ideology.

[ Parent ]
The mirror in which we see ourselves is often distorted (0.00 / 0)
"I'm on the side described as purist, but I feel I'm quite pragmatic."

And I think I'm a qite funny guy, even though poepl often say I'm too serious.

But, ok, in reality, the extremes are rare. I think it's kind of a scale between purism and puritanism, and there's almost always people to both sides of you, and so you see things relative to yur own position. All just shades of gray, uh...

[ Parent ]
i thinkt he reason this happeens (4.00 / 2)
is that under the guise of "pragmatism" "getting things done" "anti-dumb" "bipartisanship" - Obama and others like him have sillently conceded large parts of the agenda and masked tacit support for a particular policy aims under path of least resistance.  But ahouthg that may or may not be necessary (see: financial crisis), it is certainly ceding power to structure rather than human agency.  Essentially it's a white flag to the interests of the market or what have you.

This doesn't make him bad - it just means that we should recognize that there are TWO separate debates going on - the one you pointed to - purism vs. pragmatism - and the other about  competing ideologies.

[ Parent ]
Right, doc, two debates (0.00 / 0)
"purism vs. pragmatism - and the other about competing ideologies". The purism vs. pragmatism debate is already on, every comment thread is full o it, no matter what the topic. And we don't need a debate about ideology, cause we liberals here share the same core beliefs, even if we struggle about the right way to carve them into policy.

But this doesn't say we shold waste our time with a debate about that nonsense comparison "pragmatism vs. ideology". That was my point. Otherwise, 100% ack.  

[ Parent ]
Greenwald fights straw men! And ridiculously so. (0.00 / 0)
The premise on which he starts his argument is totally false. I'm really surprised about the fraudulent logic displayed here:

If one discards the need for ideology in favor of "pragmatism" and "competence"

Excuse me pls, but which pragmatist really "discards the need for ideology"? Without ideology, pragmatists would be unable to even identify the better of two alternatives, and thus be no pragmatists anymore! Actually, the implied idea here that pragmatists have no ideological beliefs is insulting. Quite to the contrary, pragmatists and purists often share the same beliefs. They only differ in how they want to achieve their goals.

Greenwald's dire mistake here is that he frames ideology and pragmatism as opposites. But they are abstract objects of a different type. It's like comparing surrealist paintings to oranges.

And then it doesn't get any better, when he makes it look as if pragmatism is about pursuing selfish interests with no regard to ethical values: "Are there military and economic benefits to be derived for the U.S. from invading Pakistan?" Hello? A pragmatic progressive would be concerned about what is the best way to prevent the US from invading any nation, not about what could be gained from it! Really, this is outright insulting. Greenwald makes it look like left wing pragmatists don't share even the most basic progressive beliefs. That's scandalous, and not any better than typical right wing "arguments" a la Rush Limbaugh. Asshole.

And while Daniel's approach isn't as unfair, he also makes the same fraudulent statement: "There is another fundamental problem with the ideology of pragmatism"

NO, sry, but again, PRAGMATISM IS A STRATEGY, NOT AN IDEOLOGY! Of course, some may embrace the strategy so much that it becomes an ideological preference for them, but this can be only an addition to the ideology they already have. Pragmatism per se can't provide a view of the world how it should be. Liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism can. Without any core beliefs to provide a framework for judgments, pragmatism is like four wheels without any idea about what to do with them.

Greenwald, De Groot: Major logical flaws, and totally missed the real topic. Setzen, Sechs!

aoei (4.00 / 3)
It's possible I am strawmanning, but I don't think so.  I agree with what you're writing here, but I don't believe this is what I was responding to with this post.  What you've got here is self-evidently reasonable.

However I have seen a fair amount of writing that leaves me to believe that many think that Obama can usher in a post-ideological era where generally agreeable solutions can be found that don't require partisan bickering.  That sentiment is where I see pragmatism taken to the level of a full bore ideology (pragmatology?).  That is what I am trying to respond to here.  It's not that I see pragmatism and ideology as inherently opposed but that they have been set up as such, and ideology has been painted as a nasty, stupid thing we should all scorn and avoid.

Within the confines of the debate you outline, seeing pragmatism merely as a strategy, we are back to the age-old debate about incrementalism versus idealism.  Should we rush for 1-3 yards, or hail mary for the TD in one play?  Each approach has risks.  In contemporary terms, an example of that debate might be:  Should Obama implement his stated health care plan (incremental improvement) or just grab the brass ring and go for so form of true-UHC?  

That's an important debate, and it plays out all the time - I don't have a fixed answer either.  I sometimes find it better to get what is surely attainable, and other times think bold strokes and brave plays are worth trying.  

However, if that was the substance of the debate I'm seeing, I would have no big problem at all.  If Obama wants to QB a team that never throws deep and tries to get to the end zone with short plays, at least he is always going towards the same end zone I hope to reach.  But then you have decisions like caving on FISA or picking Republicans to run the National Security apparatus  described in these terms as "practical necessities" - and I see that as giving up yardage.  

[ Parent ]
ideology vs pragmatism (0.00 / 0)
The classic example was on mandates.  Some people were for edwards and Clinton and then declared Obama not ideologically pure enough because he opposed the solution with more government.

When in reality mandates were actually the Republican solution and most people in the democratic party didn't want them.

Ideology is viewing the world in center left, leftist, rightist and so on and saying "if we just move left everything will be solved.  We don't need a competent executor or anything else.  Just the person saying the most leftist opinions"


Mandates are the solution with less freedom, not necessarily more gov.! (4.00 / 1)
It can very well be that mandatory healthcare needs less administration, it all depends ont he details of the plans.

And also mandates aren't a "Republican solution", totally to the contrary! There is no choice in universal healthcare a la Edwards/Clinton. Obama's voluntary plan is actually the more republican one, if you really want to make that point.

"if we just move left everything will be solved.  We don't need a competent executor or anything else.  Just the person saying the most leftist opinions"
Dunno if some really follow this ideology, but that's naive.

[ Parent ]
mandates (4.00 / 1)
Specifically, for myself as one who is mostly concerned that America simply get UHC, mandates seemed to at least provide the "U."  That was my ideological objection to Obama's plan.  Pragmatically, I accept that true-UHC may be impossible, or at least, if it is possible, it is risky enough that I cannot fault Democrats for being wary of pursuing it in one fell swoop.  So I can pragmatically accept any of the top-3 primary candidate's plans as "better than the status quo."

Do they have conservative elements?  Yes, but I would still call them "progressive" because they are better than what is.  

As an example, I'm not aware of any liberals who opposed expanding S-CHIP.  This is a pragamatic, incremental improvement.  And yet it has risks:  Giving health care to more people, but not everyone, risks watering down the electoral willpower for true UHC.  Part of the reason America doesn't have UHC is that lots of people are relatively satisfied with their current health care and don't care much or understand properly the plight of those that have no, or inadequate care.

Similarly, there are risks to the Obama and Hillary plans - if they don't work, they'll ruin the idea of UHC for another generation.  My guess is conservatives will work to ensure there are poison pills in any plan they let through the Senate unless Obama and Biden can pull an LBJ on McConnell somehow.

[ Parent ]
Or to sum it up (0.00 / 0)
A pragmatist says "How can we help people"?

An ideologist says "How can we move the country to the left?"


another way to look at this is: (0.00 / 0)
a pragmatist says what do we need to do to get things done in the short run, regardless of what the ideological consequences of that will be?

an ideologue looks at the world through the lens of their beliefs and attempts to figure out how to make the world conform more to that vision.

The difference, here, is that neither of these two are mutually exclusive - a pragmatic progressive and progressive pragmatic are on the same team - and in america, it's the only way it can work right now - even if they have to fight with each other to amek it work.  ultimately, it comes down to a question of strategy in context shaped by your underlying values and beliefs.

[ Parent ]
of course (0.00 / 0)
a really pragmatic/progressive will recognize that there are roles for people and groups who are more ideological ("further ot the left") and people who are more pragmatic (can help you get things done).  And that, i think, is a recipe for p9olitical movement building in the u.s.

[ Parent ]
Grr. The same distortion that Greenwald made, doc! (0.00 / 0)
"a pragmatist says what do we need to do to get things done in the short run, regardless of what the ideological consequences of that will be?"

Maybe it's just a misleading phrasing, but imho pragmatists care as much about ideology as purists. It's just that pragmatist are much more willing to accept compromises, as long as they lead into their ideologically preferred direction. Really, where do you get that effing idea that pragmatists are not driven by their ideological believes???

[ Parent ]
because (4.00 / 1)
Many of the "compromises" we have been asked to accept by Democratic leaders do not forward liberalism even slightly.  Often they actually are conservative in nature, and the "compromise" is that it is merely less conservative than Republicans had sought.

The defence of this is typically an appeal to electoral necessity.  We just need to do this to avoid being kicked out of power.  That is a very practical concern.  Democrats should not pursue liberal ideology to the level of losing power in the next election, but at some point there needs to be a line where you are willing to risk losing power for the principles at stake.  Otherwise the Naderites are right and there is no meaningful difference between the parties.

[ Parent ]
right on (4.00 / 1)
We just need to do this to avoid being kicked out of power.  That is a very practical concern.  Democrats should not pursue liberal ideology to the level of losing power in the next election

You nailed it here.  If the debate could be summarized quickly, it is not "practical" vs. "ideological" - it's power vs. ideals.  And a compromise will be made -

but the problem is that we who want something different - like me - keep saying that - but don't have a strategy yet to get a compromise that WE want.   So there will be a more universal health care - will it simply be financial rationalization or will be actually extend health coverage and improve it; so there will be troop withdrawal from  iraq - will they get sent elsewhere or can the u.s. actually move a way from a military-led economy; so there will be efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - will it be subsidies for ethanol that are exacerbating a global food crisis and anti-Muslim rhetoric against "foreign oil" or will we actually get solutions that are decent AND accomplish the ends that these problems are meant to do.

I think the real "pragmatists" are pushable in a variety of directions so if we make it the path of least resistance to go along with us rather than people we disagree with, we'll be better off.

[ Parent ]
No. (4.00 / 3)
Part of the liberal ideology is "government is how we organize to solve our problems, ergo, the point of government is to help people."

The things you are trying to separate are not separable.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
perhaps (0.00 / 0)
You are talking about ideologues.  I agree with Greenwald again:

It's possible to become too rigid and unyielding in one's ideological beliefs -- to adhere excessively to principles without regard to consequences -

But this doesn't refute what I have written above about the inherent problems of trying to eschew ideology.  Even "helping people" is an ideological goal.  One conservativism does not share.

[ Parent ]
almost everyone wants to help people (4.00 / 1)
or at least think they do.

The father who beats his children tells himself he is toughening them up.

The neoliberal economist claims that helping poor people makes them dependent.

The neoconservatives claim that we invade countries to bring them democracy and the wonders of capitalism.

I assert that most of them believe what they are saying.

And I believe that I would be helping most Americans if I could move this country further to the left. I wouldn't be doing it otherwise.

[ Parent ]
This is true (4.00 / 1)
I often think to myself, "How can I move the country to the left" whilst kicking starving orphans.

Jesus. Strawman much?

Forgotten Countries - a foreign policy-focused blog

[ Parent ]
You too? (0.00 / 0)
Well for me it's just puppies, but still.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
I'm such a wimp (4.00 / 1)
All I do is hold down cats and rub their fur the wrong way.

[ Parent ]
thanks for initiating this discussion (0.00 / 0)
one thing i have learned is that in addition  to ideology (belief system) and pragmatism (efficacy) there is the underlying value system - a sense of decency.  I think you merge these into ideology, but the two are quite separate.  You need some emotional component to what you're doing in order to make it work - why you may have chosen a particular ideology, why particular "pragmatic" compromises can be described as "amoral" etc.

This doesn't have to be religious but at the level of the grassroots it often is.  I'm taling here abotu ethos - so a socialist ideology would talk about government ownership whereas as a socialist ethos would talk about policies and values that are in tune with the idea of people giving what they can and receiving what they need.  

i don't think ideology or pragmatism can work without this understanding, and without it you can  get easy polarization, failiures in political anaylsis, etc. - rather than the idea that "we're all in it together".  Ideologies intersect with this - "we" can mean 'Americans' or 'poor people' or 'wokring class people' or other things.

Somewhere said in an earlier thread (0.00 / 0)
that what is really needed around here is a primer on liberal ideology, like the stuff that was run when the blog first started. It would be helpful.

Montani semper liberi

I'd like that - there are some internal conflicts within liberalism (4.00 / 2)
What happens when liberal policies on the environment conflict with liberal policies on job creation? All the discussion on "green" jobs only partially bridges the gap.

There are similar conflicts w/r/t trade. If free trade were always "bad", and Europeans are always "liberal" when compared in the context of US politics, then the European Union should never have been created.

[ Parent ]
Also, let's face it, (0.00 / 0)
the Right took control of the old media for one reason only, and that was to promote their own particular ideology and make it seem normal.

As a result, until the internet came along, few of us were ever able to listen to progressive voices talking about the news of the day.

I am one of the lucky ones. In college I took American History from an unrepentant liberal, who told us stories about our country we had never heard before. Stories about Wobblies and Hull House, and Pinkertons. I fought her every step of the way (as a good child of the Reagan generation) but she opened my eyes, and for that I am forever grateful.

So this is how I was introduced to ideology, what it is and why it matters, but not everyone has had the same good fortune.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Don't let anybody tell you the EU is liberal (0.00 / 0)
It may be a liberal idea, but it is not a liberal institution. It is a corrupt, largely ignored bureaucracy with a lot of power and basically conservative impulses.

Forgotten Countries - a foreign policy-focused blog

[ Parent ]
Just talking in the American context (0.00 / 0)
In the game of relativism, I suggest that even the EU bureaucracy, as conservative as it might be in the European spectrum, is solidly liberal in the context of US politics.

[ Parent ]
Not sure (0.00 / 0)
Humourless, officious (they like to prosecute people for selling goods in imperial measurements, and up until recently it was illegal to sell fruit outside certain size restrictions), corrupt and absolutely devoted to free trade, they definitely are.

On social issues, they have no influence, so they may count as liberal. But in terms of economics the free-traders are a global elite group.

Forgotten Countries - a foreign policy-focused blog

[ Parent ]
Excellent post. (0.00 / 0)
Works for whom is always a good question to put to so-called pragmatists.

Pragmatism, to me, doesn't mean being free of ideology. (0.00 / 0)
Some kind of ideology is basically necessary to have any sort of context, frame of reference to think about problems in. Otherwise how do you even make sense of anything?

What pragmatism means is being able and willing to recognize when your ideology is wrong.

Political ideologies are to society as scientific theories are to reality. If it turns out they don't fit, you have to amend them until they do or discard them.

Yep, still a worthy article. (0.00 / 0)
Write another. And somebody ask Chris to re-open.


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky


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