Tag Archives: William James

Radical Pragmatism

4 Jan

The turn of the New Year spurs a certain amount of self-reflection, a review of fundamental assumptions and beliefs, perhaps a re-examination of perspectives and intellectual bedrock. Left unanalyzed (or re-analyzed), one may be surprised to accidentally discover that the label they cling to (Democrat, libertarian) and the honest expression of their beliefs have diverged. Additionally, the bloggy nature of new journalism eliminates a fourth wall between writer and reader. I am allowed (or expected) to share, and you often seek, that bedrock as the subtext by which you will judge the rest of my writings. 

That’s a long way of saying I write some articles for you and some for me, like this one, so I steady my own sea legs before undertaking another expedition of writer’s observation in 2011, and because my medium is electrons and not paper, you are welcome to come along on the ride looking over my shoulder. 

Image by Paul Klee at BBQChickenRobot.com


While discussing the impact and motivations of Wikileak founder Julian Assange, Chris Smith made the following comment about my detached perspective that the leaks are not ground breaking, the Information Revolution has not begun, diplomacy is not over, and Wikileak/Assange boosters are merely being duped by a self-promoting charlatan: 

I guess that’s why it’s fun to be a raging centrist, you don’t have to take a stand on anything, you just get to argue that everyone else is a radical. 

This evoked greater soul searching than perhaps Chris intended with a social media comment throw-away line. 

A great strength of our country, and a major stabilizer to its government, is the presence of only two political parties. But a natural assumption and lie that this arrangement produces is that on each policy topic of import there are but two perspectives. Further exasperating the divide, on the national stage, and in the national conversation, the elimination of north-eastern Republicans and southern Democrats fully aligned ideology and political party in a less than historical way. Not only are there only two legitimate and plausible policy positions, but they have grown further apart. Failure to chose between them and align makes you uneducated, uninformed, or part of the spineless, unprincipled mushy center. If you cared about Progress, you’d pick a side: its the only way to get anything done in this country. 

A realistic response that is increasingly less true. Not only do independents and unaffiliated voters now outnumber registered Republicans or Democrats, but the liberalization of information and organizing power of the internet has made non-party movements, such as the Tea Party, more influential, for good or for ill. I find the overall trend encouraging, as perhaps it will finally allow for non-party solutions, mirroring my own philosophical movement. 

In the year and a half that I have been writing for WNYMedia as the Reasonable Republican, I find myself having less and less in common with “my” party. It is harder and harder to defend tactically, politically, or ideologically. However, Democrats have made themselves no more endearing in that time either – quite the opposite.  A little voice has until now always whispered to choose a side in the name of Pragmatism. Now Pragmatism’s council is shifting as well. 

Serendipitously enter the story of William James on NPR’s On Point Radio yesterday morning. That I have not prominently used him as a touchstone before, in my policy and political writings, says more about my shortcomings than his eloquence and historic influence. In the nineteenth century, James advocated for (at that time) poorly connoted Pragmatism, a philosophy that he saw as epitomizing plucky, practical America. Free of class and caste and history and religious dominance, the American experiment was uniquely positioned to take advantage of unbiased scientific, measured, empirical solutions. James eschewed Idealism because it was divorced from reality – it made the intention of an action more important than the actual effect. Pragmatism, on the other hand, provided the holistic assessment of the fruits of one’s labor, no matter the source or feeling behind it. Its extreme practicality and novelty gave it an American flair – it could promise a better human future more than any other philosophy because its search for Truth would produce real implemented benefits. In other words, Progress. 

In applying Pragmatism to politics and policy, the rediscovery of a Third Way is hardly new philosophical ground, but it is rhetorical ground rarely tread, and has few modern champions of (popular) note. Most commentators and pundits (and Nobel prize winners?) applaud themselves for their hard ideological lean. In searching for writers who vocally seek a vigorous pragmatic way, one is left with Tom Friedman, who while loud and less than humble is hardly held in the highest esteem. Charismatic intellects of note (or those seeking employment as a columnist) rightly forsake the solitary wilderness and non-categorization of a new way. The best discussion about Wikileaks we could be having now would concern intelligence reform, and examining how much we classify, and where it is shared, rather than simply worshiping and condemning the messenger (a self-reinforcing process). Little of such talk rises to the media surface. 


I have written several times in the past that Pragmatism and Conservatism are fine bedfellows due to the latter’s keen eye for reality as it is, not as Liberals or Libertarians wish it was. Liberalism overly drifts into the aspirational (inspirational?), and Libertarianism has become a haven for misanthropes. Unfortunately, political Conservatism lately is more in the business of provoking and then salving fears, rather than applying practical solutions. To admit my own bias, I have been suspicious of government based action, but for pragmatic reasons: the government is historically bad conducting many of its charges. While it uniquely succeeds in tasks involving things (raising armies, massive infrastructure construction, promoting and conducting scientific research) it often fails at tasks involving people (schools, social services, jails). If only executive power could wax and wane based upon performance, and greater responsibility was earned through the effectiveness of actions. Sigh.

Pragmatic good government has two foes: Democrats and Republicans. Democrats are too beholden to public sector unions to institute meaningful reform, and Republicans are too ideologically blind to consider the government the solution to anything. Democrats rightly ask how Republicans should be allowed to reform government (or even be in charge of it) when they hate it so much. Republicans can rightly respond that Democrats love government because it fills their campaign coffers and patronage pits, and they are not any less intellectually bankrupt as to how to make it more effective and efficient.

What new way, then? What passes for pragmatism now is middling bi-partisanship, the centrism of Chris Smith’s comment above, the antithesis of the soul of James’ work. Instead of applying tested and researched solutions, in Washington each side simply gets half of what they want, with no overall plan or method. This year’s tax cut debate in the lame duck session of Congress is the perfect example. The Democrats revel in their intentions of helping the poor, the Republicans in there success of getting their way. That the rich should pay more taxes is a feeling in search of confirmation, not a policy plan based on the merits. That no one’s taxes should be raised is an ideological bias with think-tanks bankrolled to prove it. No coherent policy has been implemented. The country is worse off than before. What should be done?  

I give you Radical Pragmatism. 

Cold hearted and secular Pragmatism, ironically, is left as the only morally justifiable philosophy for solving civic problems. If you wish to reduce the scourge of childhood poverty, for example, and that alone is your aim, you should care little whether government or religious or private organizations do the heavy lifting. Yet Republicans and Democrats, and Liberals and Conservatives, will because of chosen bias sort through only one set of solutions (the best government program, for Liberals), placing the ideological over the practical. The best, most effective solution for reducing child poverty may lie at the far, safe and well populated end of a political spectrum, but I doubt it. It hasn’t been found there yet. But I will wait for the evidence to instruct so. 

Pragmatism, therefore, is Progress, and the term Progressive should be taken back from Liberals, who would only seek one government created version of it. Radical Pragmatism is the creation of a voice to advocate for such Progress, competing in a political-party-produced clamor.