The death of pragmatism

By January 5, 2018 No Comments


Illustration: https://talonsphilosophy.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/drawing-idealist-pragmatist-w800.jpg


By Aristotle Vossos

        A recent New York Magazine article discussed the rise of tribalism and the problem it poses to U.S. democracy. In my opinion, this issue goes far beyond the United States. After a year and a half at Sciences Po, I find it increasingly hard to engage in or even observe a meaningful debate between individuals on the left and right of the political spectrum. And recent elections have shown that this problem goes far beyond college campuses.

        The theory of pragmatism posits that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical implications and that the function of thought is to guide action. Not to beat a dead horse, but I will refer to the U.S. election as an example. In this case, the left holds most of the blame. Countless individuals refused to vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, claiming that she would be just as bad as him. Many of these voters based their argument on their strong anti-capitalist views without taking into account the practical consequences of their actions. Individuals on the left also made similar claims regarding the French election, with countless Sciences Po students proclaiming their intent to cast a vote blanc. Many individuals on the far-left argued that a Macron presidency would be as bad as a Le Pen presidency. Because the fact that Marine Le Pen was a racist far-righter with abhorrent immigration policies was a negligible detail.

In both of these examples, I place the blame on a lack of pragmatism. Ideology should serve to guide individuals’ actions, but ideology is rarely transferrable to the real world as it is. There are obvious practical constraints. Trickle-down economics is just one example that works in theory but not in practice. Therefore, anyone on the left or right of the political spectrum who acts without taking into account the practical implications of their actions is only adding to the problem.

        This lack of pragmatism goes beyond simple political debates and voting intentions. In 2010, Mitch McConnell stated that the Republicans’ main goal was to make Barack Obama a one-term president. Though they did not succeed in this goal, the Republicans did successfully block countless of Obama’s initiatives during most of his two-terms when they controlled the House and later the Senate. When one party’s main goal is simply opposing the ruling party in government rather than working with it, the consequences can be disastrous. The Democrats are not acting much better now. They too are opposing most of the GOP’s initiatives with Trump in power. The resistance movement against Trump is also arguing for no cooperation with Trump. This is the wrong decision. Democrats should work with Republicans on the issues that matter to them. If their only goal is to sabotage the Trump presidency, the eventual outcome will be one party refusing to work with the other when it is not in power, slowly eating away at the power of the presidency and eroding any progress that the previous president has made.

        In the political realm, pragmatism often involves compromise and agreeing with another party. Sadly, this is not a politically smart choice in today’s world, as seen by the recent showing by the SPD in the German elections. The SPD lost 40 seats, winning only 20% of the vote in the latest elections. By governing alongside the CDU for the past 4 years, the SPD could find little to separate it from the CDU in the elections. By taking pragmatic decisions and not constantly opposing the CDU for 4 years, the SPD received no benefits. Easy to see why it has ruled out another ‘grand coalition’ following the elections. But this is pure game theory in action. If only one actor is being pragmatic whilst all others are not, they will suffer the negative consequences. But things need not be this way.

        2017 can easily be described as the year when the world became more polarized, on all levels. Relationships between countries, parties, and individuals deteriorated. Countless elections ended in no party achieving a majority, demonstrating this division. And the left-right divide became as marked as ever. All of this has resulted in the death of pragmatism, and with it the cooperation and compromise needed to move forward. One can hope that 2018 will see a reversion of this, but there is little to suggest that the tide is turning. If the current climate continues, things will only get worse.


Aristotle Vossos is a second year students who likes to criticise Sciences Po and anything Sciences Po related. When not doing that he likes to criticise France. And when not doing that he’s either drinking or sleeping. The Straight White Male runs once every month.


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