Pragmatism is a lauded quality in politics. Leaders love to proclaim how reasonable, savvy and realistic they are, to distinguish themselves from the raving, juvenile, idealistic voices on the fringe. This prized quality, though — the ability to make wise policy choices based on a practical, unsympathetic look at the actual conditions of the world — is widely misinterpreted. It is not a pneumatic tube that automatically deposits you squarely in the middle of the political spectrum at all times. Instead, it demands that leaders have the bravery to follow the facts where they lead. On a normal day, you wouldn’t dive out of a fifth floor window into the river below — but if your building was on fire, that would become the most reasonable choice. What was once radical can quickly become rational, when the world is burning.
Often, what gets passed off as pragmatism in politics is just head-in-the-sand conservatism with better PR. The fetishism of centrists, of “moderates,” is based not on wisdom, but on fear — the perennial fear that comes when the safety of being surrounded on all sides by agreement evaporates. True reason demands that when the world changes, our views about the world change too. The political brand of the Reasonable Man is notable for its distinct unwillingness to do this basic thing.
People march in the streets demanding the end of fossil fuel energy so that we might head off another mass extinction. The wise, realistic leaders explain that this sort of fairy tale goal is not reasonable. The outcome will be another mass extinction. People march in the streets demanding stricter gun control, so that they are not shot when they go to school. Moderates in the Senate explain that such bills are not viable, but perhaps there is a small, symbolic compromise to be had somewhere. The outcome will be that more kids are shot in schools. People march in the streets to ask that some of the money we spend on police be spent instead on social services, so that people in crisis might have someone to call on other than men with guns who take them to jail. Political consultants explain that such ideas poll poorly, and must be rejected with great force. The outcome will be the continuation of the failed attempt to deal with all social problems at gunpoint.
Which side is being unrealistic here? The failure to understand that solutions must match the scale and severity of our problems leaves us, inevitably, with problems that never get solved. Problems that never get solved, in these cases, translate to the mass immiseration of millions of people for generation after generation. This state of affairs is considered acceptable by the moderates, primarily because it already exists. Inability to imagine a better world is a hallmark of wise moderates. People who can see what must be done are told, more than anything else, that doing such things is unrealistic, because it would be hard. Rarely does the political establishment reckon with the fact that the only thing harder than doing these things is not doing them.
When, through poor design or outright malice, a political system produces grossly unjust outcomes for decade after decade after decade, the pragmatic thing to do would be to change that political system, right? Am I being a childish ignorant college-freshman-smoking-weed-in-the-dorm who doesn’t understand the real world here? Nearly a quarter of a millennium ago, a small group of wealthy white men in a fledgling colonial nation wrote a constitution that seemed, to them, the best they could do, with their accumulated wisdom at the time, and in light of all of the necessary political compromises. Hundreds of years later, we can clearly see the flaws: The Senate magnifies the power of small rural states so grotesquely that Congress is far more conservative than the population; the Electoral College periodically allows people who get significantly fewer votes than their opponent to become president; the Supreme Court can, through determined political maneuvering, be turned into a chamber of unaccountable priests who enforce religious doctrine on a secular nation from on high. These institutions are not good for us. They, along with gerrymandering and the filibuster and porous campaign finance laws and other more modern perversions of the fundamental idea of democracy, are pushing American deeper and deeper into an untenable period of minority rule. It is not going well now, and it will not end well.
The obvious solution is to change the structures that are constricting our ability to build a functioning democracy. Obviously! Yet “structural reform” is perceived by the majority of people in power as a step too far. We can’t even get the filibuster out of the way with a Democratic Congress. Joe Biden has already proclaimed that he doesn’t favor expanding the Supreme Court. Despite the elections of both Bush and Trump, who lost the popular vote, there has not been any sustained push to scrap the Electoral College. And “abolish the Senate” is not even discussed enough to enter the pantheon of fringe positions. Recognition of the fact that our entire system was designed by humans and can be changed by humans and, furthermore, must be changed by humans remains mystifyingly absent from mainstream discourse. We are like the drivers of a car accelerating towards a brick wall, unwilling to take our foot off the gas pedal and hit the brakes, because we don’t want to disturb the passengers in the back seat.
I do not make this rudimentary point in order to try to persuade anyone that structural changes will be easy. It is not a question of what is easy, but of what is necessary. If something is necessary, you must do it even if it is hard, and the consequences of not doing it are too dire to be a reasonable choice. Diving from that apartment window into the river below sure seems terrifying, but not as terrifying as staying put and burning to death.
The first step in doing hard things is to understand and agree that you have to do them. That step, America’s political leadership has been unwilling to take. They can remain in this state of unwillingness because it has not become politically untenable for them to be there. The idea that radicalism must forever be a minority position is false, and poisonous. Many of us, who think of ourselves as moderate, reasonable people, must allow ourselves to be led by reality to the conclusion that what once seemed politically radical is now rational. The self-proclaimed centrists who are congenitally unwilling to embrace radical change will then become the fringe. Reality moves by itself. There is nothing admirable in pretending that we don’t need to move with it.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.