Progressives Are Already Pragmatic
The 2016 Democratic Presidential Primaries opened a debate within the party that is still going on, a debate that seeks to answer the question: Should the Democrats be more progressive, or should they be pragmatic? The question, however, is a flawed one. In truth, the two are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, I assert that the progressives are the most pragmatic segment of the Democratic Party.
Bernie Sanders ran on a campaign of virtuous governance and correctly identifying the problems facing America. Much of the mainstream media chose to misrepresent this as an agenda of naïve idealism and an unwillingness to compromise, despite the fact that the Senator from Vermont had a history of working imperfect bills through Congress. This piece from The Guardian attempted to mislead readers with the following comparison between former President Obama and the Senator:
The difference between the president’s approach and that of Sanders is that the president remains rooted in pragmatism.
In 2008, Obama’s campaign of hope and change led supporters to expect a radical reconstruction of the system. In office, reality meant progress by shorter steps. Sanders would probably discover, were he to assume the highest office in the land, the virtues as well as the limitations of compromise.
When Trump assumed the Oval Office on January 20, 2017, Obama had spent a total of twelve years in Washington, as a Senator and as President. On that same day, Sanders had served a total of twenty-six years and was entering his twenty-seventh. To speak of Sanders, in the preceding election, as some kind of political novice who is clueless to the inner workings of government is nothing short of a lie.
The lie was not simply against a figure like Bernie Sanders. It was against what he represented: the greater Progressive Movement in the United States. It is a lie that we still see being peddled to this day, with many old guard members of the Democratic Party rebranding themselves as “pragmatic progressives,” in some vain attempt to appeal to both sides of the party.
And I say it is in vain because it is. It clearly is not going to resonate with progressives, and applying “pragmatic” as a descriptor to almost anything else proves this. Imagine someone is running for office, and they tell a room full of Christians, “I’m a pragmatic Christian.” As soon as they have said that, they have lost everyone’s vote. If a vegetarian asks the candidate about their diet, and they respond, “I’m a pragmatic vegetarian,” that candidate has just alienated that vegetarian voter.
It is not all that hard to understand why people will take it that way. Being a progressive, a Christian, or a vegetarian all imply some sort of underlying principles, and you either accept those principles, or you do not. It is simply not possible to shoehorn some kind of middle position with wordplay. Reality is not a product of eloquence. When a candidate runs as a pragmatic progressive, they reveal that they are not only not a progressive but also that they are intentionally trying to deceive, and I fail to see the pragmatism behind being an openly bad liar.
Beyond that, history makes it crystal clear that progressives have the most pragmatic track record. What major, lasting changes came out of the Obama Administration? His only major achievement was the Affordable Care Act, which was, on its best days, only a half-solution to the issue of healthcare. Most of it is now left in tatters by President Trump and the Republican Congress. Even when Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House under Obama, nothing that could be considered a game-changer was produced. The same could be said of President Clinton. Many of his major changes proved to be disasters in the long-run: NAFTA, welfare reform, and the repeal of Glass-Steagall are leading examples. Obama apparently failed to learn those lessons, passing a meager Dodd-Frank Act and pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership until it cost his party the White House in 2016.
In a speech defending incrementalism at Howard University in 2016, Obama told students:
You know what? I will take better every time. I always tell my staff, better is good because you can consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position.
What Obama says is not altogether illogical. He is essentially describing the Pareto Principle. Known also as the 80–20 Rule, it is named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist from the 19th Century and early 20th Century. He noticed one day that 20% of the pea pods in his garden produced 80% of the peas. He later found this same distribution, when he noticed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the Italian population. The rough 80–20 distribution has been found in many other things. A study by the UN in 1989 showed that the richest 20% of the global population possessed 82% of the world’s income. It can even be applied to athletics, where 85% of baseball wins were attributed to 15% of the players in a single year.
The explanation for the Pareto Principle is relatively simple and goes back to what Obama was saying: winning a contest, whether for fun or for survival, increases the chances that you will win a series of contests. After all, having a slight edge over your competition usually gets the winner 100% of the rewards. Those rewards thus exclusively strengthen the winner, allowing them to win again and again, which adds up to produce big differences between the winners and the losers, usually to a level of 80 to 20.
If this is the case, why are Democratic leaders and their policies so short-lived and ephemeral? Surely their advantages would accumulate. Such a conclusion relies, however, on the assumption that Democratic voters have actually been the winners. By most counts, they have not been, and for the party to continue to win, the party, as a whole, has to get some of the reward.
Consider, from the day that Bill Clinton took office to the day that Obama left, income inequality increased every single year. Some of this was natural, a result of the rest of the world becoming more competitive and catching up with America’s economy that had not been damaged by the Second World War. Some of it was assisted by the very policies of these Presidents. As I mentioned, NAFTA, welfare reform, and the repeal of Glass-Steagall were disasters. They created a tsunami of wealth for the top 20%, who typically vote Republican, but not for the rest of the electorate. As necessary as the bank bailouts and the 2009 stimulus package were, we can see that they failed to bring the middle class back to its pre-2008 status, while Wall St has fared exceptionally well. The ACA may have expanded healthcare to millions of Americans, but it contained provisions that were intended to keep the major insurance companies pleased and profitable, as the eventual rise in premiums would go on to prove.
Over a 24-year period from 1993 to 2017, whenever Democrats got anything done that was, in theory, major, there was always more for the wealthiest citizens than there was for the their poorer voting base. The result is that their voters have remained immiserated in lower standards of living, which either directly or indirectly, reduces their participation in the political process. Sometimes they just lose hope and stay home. Sometimes they fail to live to the next election. The bottom line is that the base does not turn out, and democracy is ultimately a game of having good attendance.
Compare that to the Progressive Era, which I mentioned recently. Several major accomplishments were achieved in this time, that completely transformed labor standards, the tax code, finance, product safety, and so on. We still hear the echoes of that Era now, especially since many of us just paid our income taxes to the government, a tax that did not exist until that time period. When we work, it is only for eight hours, and when we go over that, we are entitled to overtime pay. This was a product of that period as well.
Under the New Deal Coalition, a second progressive movement which lasted from 1932 to 1968, we saw several other lasting gains, such as the minimum wage, collective bargaining rights, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and massive additions to our infrastructure. Again, these are all things that we still enjoy today and that are unlikely to disappear. It is worth understanding why that might be.
Both progressive movements enjoyed a string of Presidents with the same basic agenda. In the Progressive Era, we had Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, who each added to the accomplishments of the era and allowed previous accomplishments to stick. Because all of them actually carried out progressive reforms, voters were very encouraged, to the point that Taft, Roosevelt, and Wilson had to compete for those votes in 1912 in order to win. The progressive movement was so powerful that it defied the two-party system.
We saw the same successes under the New Deal Coalition. Roosevelt was elected a whopping four times, and his successor, Truman, eventually won in his own right. This ensured the immortality of all of his accomplishments, especially since the Republicans, at times, made gains in Congress that might have threatened their survival. Even with his party split three ways, Truman won the ’48 election, and to this day, you hear folks say, “Truman was our last honest President.”
The only way the Republicans could break the streak was with Eisenhower, who, in addition to being a war hero, would not touch the New Deal and even added to it. Once more, progressive politics transcended the parties. This allowed Kennedy and Johnson to pick up the reins for the Democrats again, when the Civil Rights Movement finally splintered the party irrevocably. Nonetheless, the New Dealers enjoyed a 34-year reign, an astounding achievement. By consistently delivering on bold promises that assisted their voters, the leaders of this movement accrued advantages allowed them to win again and again. It was the incrementalism that Obama only dreamed of pulling off.
Progressive presidents score well. When ranked by scholars, Washington and Lincoln tend to alternate between #1 and #2, but the slots from 3 to 10 are usually occupied by both Roosevelts, Wilson, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Taft’s size, unfortunately, appears to have tarnished his memory and kept him off of the list.
The pragmatists and the incrementalists have not been able to replicate such a long hold on power or that kind of reputation. For all their talk about running a campaign that actually wins, they only seem to be able to do so for the short-term. Indeed, they only focus on winning the next election, often at the cost of winning a series of elections. They do not lay the groundwork to survive when the pendulum inevitably tries to swing the other way.
The Democratic Party needs to understand that it will only be successful if it can stay in long enough for its reforms to take root and become appreciated by the public. It also needs to realize that, sometimes, baby steps are not an option. Sometimes, the problem has gone on long enough, and major reform is the only solution. This is the case with healthcare, for example. After the ACA, which was largely unsuccessful, what other improvement can be made but the leap to Medicare-for-all?
As long as they fail to develop a realistic strategy for the long term, the Democrats will continue to be hoodwinked by the Republicans at each interval. Progressive politics is the only kind that can deliver consistent victories. We have two major periods of history that stand as proof of this, that candidates who live the values they preach will ultimately prevail.
There may be only one way in which progressives are not pragmatic, but that is a topic for another article on another day. In the meantime, progressives need to stand up to the establishment of the Democratic Party and challenge this false idea of pragmatic progressivism. The sooner we do that, the sooner the incrementalists will abandon their complacency and start doing what is necessary for them to win their primaries.