Politicians, commentators, academics—everyone loves the word “pragmatic.” Tony Blair told us on his election in 1997 that what counts is not “outdated ideology” but “what works.” David Cameron famously wrote that he doesn’t “believe in ‘isms’” because “words like communism, socialism, capitalism and republicanism all conjure up one image in [his] mind: extremism.” Earlier this year, Nick Clegg eagerly urged a group of business leaders that the Liberal Democrats would be “sensible and centrist; pragmatic—not dogmatic—at all times.” Over in the US, one of the Democrats’ most effective strategies in the November election was to portray the Republicans as out of touch, crippled by their anti-pragmatic moralism.
Modern politicians—taking their cues from advertising and business—tend to use words which come attached with an aura of positive buzz, often without having a grip on what they actually mean. “Pragmatism” is a classic example. In this case, however, the harm done goes beyond the annoyance caused to pedants and opponents of “political mumbo-jumbo.” Rather, it allows politicians to subtly stifle dissent, and causes us to neglect the most fundamental questions about what our society ought to look like.
Talk of “pragmatism,” especially in Britain, is a part of a narrative that proclaims that we have reached an era of post-ideological politics. But the term is extremely slippery, and the first problem with this cult of pragmatism is that no one seems willing to pin down exactly what they mean by “pragmatic.”
One possibility is that political pragmatism means finding the most effective means to achieving one’s goals. This reading, however, makes the virtue of pragmatism too trivial. In this sense of “pragmatic,” there is no necessary opposition between being pragmatic and being ideological. Even people driven by ideology can be concerned about actually realising their ideological values, rather than merely shouting about them.
Another possible interpretation: “pragmatism” means sacrificing moral aspirations for something else. But what exactly is the something else? It can’t be one’s own personal political gain—when Clegg and Cameron claim to be pragmatists, they don’t intend to convey that they will do anything to save their own skin (even if that may be true).
Perhaps the best interpretation is that pragmatists put concern for ordinary people’s well-being…