The New Pragmatism

Pragmatism. The word has reached a near-sacred status in the last decade, particularly since the awkward campaign and embarrassing loss of Hillary Clinton, but like all words, it can be bent to say what you want it to. The formal definition of pragmatism says:

  1. 1 :  a practical approach to problems and affairs tried to strike a balance between principles and pragmatism

and this is certainly something you heard ad infinitum during the campaign. Bernie Sanders, we were told, was not pragmatic. Hillary Clinton was.

Why then, on the grounds of pragmatism alone, did she lose? The very definition of pragmatism would say that, as the most pragmatic candidate in the race, she should have won it easily, but she didn’t. So what happened?

There’s a New Pragmatism that has finally asserted itself in America after bubbling beneath the surface for decades. This pragmatism isn’t the one that says you seek a middle road and compromise on policy, it’s the sort of pragmatism that says “gee, it sure is impractical that we have so many homeless, yet so many homes; that we waste so much food while so many starve; that we still wage a useless war on drugs while companies make massive profits getting Americans hooked on painkillers; that we can blow billions of dollars to bomb a country that never attacked us, but we can’t ensure clean drinking water for American citizens.”

THAT is the New American Pragmatism. It isn’t about cutting deals and not “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It’s realize that even the “good” in this situation isn’t good enough when basic needs and security are not being met for half of the inhabitants of the richest country the world has ever seen. This isn’t about being clever and having complicated policy that can still allow you to make bank while appearing to care about the little guy… it’s just plain caring about the little guy. The varnish of neoliberalism, which was already cracking in the last days of the Clinton presidency, fully peeled off as we raced headlong into disaster in 2016 with the “Change” President actively pushing a trade deal that would prove disastrous for the same people who voted him in.

And for those people, looking at their ballots in November, a third term of Obama no longer seemed pragmatic. What did? Something, anything that might shake things up and help them get to a place where they aren’t fearing for their lives, livelihoods and futures every day of the week. Unfortunately, folks ended up voting for a charlatan who turned out to be as nakedly greedy as any President we’ve seen before, but that will only sharpen the necessity for 2018 to be a campaign not on the old pragmatism of cleverness and cute slogans, but the New American Pragmatism of Basic Needs.

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