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Balancing pragmatism and idealism

< lot recently about arguments, and specifically, the relationship between pragmatic and moral arguments. In government, politicians are constantly faced with the need to balance these, because while pragmatism might get things done the political party’s base of support is often bound by ideology and more receptive to arguments that speak to their own moral assumptions.

The difficulty arises when trying to build consensus across lines, trying to make arguments that will appeal to others while staying true to the morals and ideals that make you the way you are. We are seeing the difficulty of this balance first hand with President Obama. Throughout the health care reform debate, we saw Obama trumpet the idea of health care as a right much less than a lot of liberals would have hoped. For those in the democratic base, the debate starts and ends with ensuring universal coverage and care. But how do you make the case for something when you need the support of people who do not have the same priorities?

What we have seen Obama do much more is make the economic argument, the argument that should appeal to everyone, without just preaching to the liberal choir. I think this has been wise, because there comes a point when there is decreasing inherent value in sticking with your moral argument when it doesn’t get you anything. Health care reform will extend coverage; regardless of the way one sells it.
But it isn’t that simple, because at the same time one makes the pragmatic argument to get reform passed, maintaining enthusiasm in the base is politically vital; the enthusiasm behind Obama’s election is a great example of the need to maintain the base’s energy.

Republicans are having trouble with this same balance as well. Trying to maintain the support of a conservative base that does not want anything to do with liberal policies is important if the party will have any future. If party officials go too far to the right, however, and forget to make pragmatic moves and arguments to independents that will actually move the country forward, they’re finished as well. Here lies the real political dilemma: making arguments that have a broad base of appeal and do not just sing to the choir, while keeping the choir singing themselves. As independents now make up the largest voting bloc, balancing pragmatism with idealism is inherent in the quest for survival. I do wish, however, that politicians would articulate the difficulty of this balance better to their constituencies. The population needs to better understand the various constraints on their public officials.

Finding a balance is complicated, but it would not be so difficult if only politicians stood up to their bases more often. And by standing up to, I do not mean in a way that shows disagreement, but in a way that argues for the pragmatic approach so that both base and politician are on the same page. Right now, the lack of this balance is paralyzing the political system and the only way it will get unstuck is for politicians to start explaining the need for pragmatism to their base constituents. The problem is that the conservative and liberal bases each have visions of the world the way they think it should be. Right now, politicians who do not appear to constantly be fighting for that vision, however, are labeled as traitors or disappointments. As a result, officials move farther and farther to the right or left, hurting any chance for consensus.

Politicians need to explain to their constituents, “Look, I agree with the vision, I’m all for it, but only thirty three percent of the country agrees. If we are going to better this society in the long run, change will have to be incremental and you will have to be patient with the process.” Getting the world closer to one’s aspirations in a sustainable way means not shocking the system, as many members of a base would like.

In the end, the problem with the moral argument is not that there is anything wrong with those morals; it is that they are based on a certain set of assumptions that not everyone has. Not buying into another side’s moral argument does not make one immoral, it just means he or she has different priorities and makes different assumptions. Take the religious right and more secular left for example (a bit of a generalization but the general point remains). People on the left are not bad people for not holding the same moral priorities as an evangelical on the right does and vice versa.

The balance between the pragmatic and moral argument can only reach equilibrium when politicians explain this so their respective bases understand this. Doing so would not only build empathy and compassion in our society, but make it a lot more pragmatic and adaptive as well.

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