There’s a lot of defeatist thought making the rounds in the Democratic Party right now. Articles like this one, talking about why Bernie Sanders couldn’t be an effective president, are par for the course among Hillary Clinton supporters. Just google “Sanders Clinton pragmatist idealist” or some variation thereof and start reading. The dichotomy is hardly new, and while it’s arguably accurate, it’s also not the whole story.
When did we, as a nation, decide that idealism was a silly idea? When did pragmatism become the new standard? You could date it to the recent era of politics extremes, I suppose, an era in which the left and the right are so diametrically opposed that certain people believe only a person prepared to compromise their ideals and settle for iterative change is capable of leading this country. I get the argument. Bernie’s a pie in the sky dreamer, while Hillary’s a down to earth doer. He is the rebellious teenager to her jaded adult. We’ve heard it all before.
The thing is, it’s all bullshit.
Buying into the notion that sweeping change is impossible and therefore not worth fighting for is fatalism at its worst. It’s a pessimistic attitude put forward by people who long ago lost their desire to change the world. There’s a reason why Hillary Clinton is supported primarily by Baby Boomers: she represents the failed opportunity that defines their generation. Pragmatism is a philosophy of failure, a belief system taken up by people who have given up on an ideal. The fact that it occasionally gets things done is illusory, a straw man, because it’s pragmatism itself that clogs up the system.
The vast majority of young people in the United States want the sweeping change that Bernie Sanders is talking about. They want equal rights for all, universal health care, and free education. They want justice for special interests and the big banks. They want a redistribution of income and an economy based on morality first and profit second. They want a government free from the corrupting influence of organized religion. They want to escape the anxious shadow of their parents’ generation, to step outside of their failure and start fresh.
Pragmatists argue that since idealistic pursuits are more difficult to realize, we shouldn’t bother to try. That despite the fact that the Affordable Care Act was a band-aid on a bullet wound, we should be grateful for what we’ve got, because it was really hard to get it passed. I call bullshit.
This is exactly the same argument that led to bailing out Wall Street after the Great Recession. It was pragmatists, like Hillary Clinton, who supported the bailout because the firms in question were too big to fail. Never mind the fact that the crash was the direct result of their reckless speculation. Letting them fail was too dangerous, the pragmatics said. Everyone would suffer. How did that work out? The economic recovery has been dismally slow, and absolutely nothing has changed on Wall Street. Compare that to Iceland, which let its banks fail, and which is now on a path to two percent unemployment.
The analogous move with the ACA would have been to refuse to make compromises: to make it actual public healthcare, not a flawed marketplace that does little more than make private health insurance more widely available. That may have meant it wouldn’t have passed at first. So be it.
Let those who would oppose progress oppose it, and let the chips fall where they may. Let history decide who was to blame. Perhaps counterintuitively, I think you’d find that far from delaying progress, it will encourage it, encourage greater participation and a more deeply shared need to create change.
Sometimes half-measures are worse than no measures at all. If the change that’s right seems impossible, it just means you have to fight harder and longer, a concept Bernie Sanders clearly understands: he’s been doing it his entire life.
Pragmatism is the death knell of progress. Idealism is its vanguard.