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An American Pragmatist at the Edge of the World: Political Pragmatism Today

Jul 20, 2020 | Social Commentary

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“Civilization has been an intermittent phenomenon […]” – Richard Weaver 

Close your eyes and imagine a vast, open savannah with me for a moment. In the lush midday sun, you see a herd of wildebeests off in the distance along the horizon. As you trample through the lanky grass, you become keenly aware of a figure ahead of you. Raised high above the ever-slender beams, an elegant feline head remains motionless.  

You, my dear reader, are its prey.  

Now, what is more important in this moment: knowing how fast this particular wildcat can run or possessing a lethal means of defending yourself? 

Put more bluntly: what damn good is how smart you are when you need to protect against being torn limb-from-limb?  

This is, at essence, what political pragmatism is about. 

A Poor Man’s Political Pragmatism  

Richard Rorty, William James, [insert other pedantic names here]. 

We’re going to save the philosophy test for another day. If you don’t know what the deflationary theory of truth is… don’t worry. Outside of undergraduate classes, no one really cares and definitely not the majority of regular Americans, whether they’re business owners, professionals, or civic leaders. 

Instead, we’re going to boil our situation down to the most basic of political realities. Our goal is to capture a sort of civic approach that exists today among some regular, everyday people in the United States. 

A sort of poor man’s political pragmatism, if you will. Raw, untempered, straightforward. A realpolitik of today’s everyman and general civic life at the end of the biggest empire in all of history.  

Or if you prefer, at the very edge of the world. 

The Menagerie of Political Animals 

So, let’s return to the example of our wild savannah. 

How much does this landscape align with the political and civic realities you know today? Surely, politics in America isn’t the same as being hunted by a wild animal, right?  

Right?! 

Stay with me as we trek through the muck.  

Peacocking Politians and Judicial Jaguars 

You would probably agree that there are no liberal lions. Or a republican party for (literal) rhinos. Nowhere on the planet do zebras argue about the benefits of a progressive ideology. Or who to vote for. 

But would it surprise you to discover, especially in this polarized time, that people aren’t really too different than animals in this regard? 

You might want to sit down for this one.  

Like peacocks, our political beliefs are largely decorative. Many of us are even willing to change them on a whim. From the article, people’s civic views didn’t actually matter all that much when it came to siding with “their side” and against the “other side.”

In other words, politics seems to be more a fight on the savanna between warring animals rather than an earnest desire to uncover our collective civic direction together.

Now, this possibility might not be easy to accept. After all, we often want to believe we’re not simply beasts of the day too.  

Yet that’s what the research seems to suggest when it comes to politics today. And we shouldn’t just pass over this fact, because it might have huge ramifications.

So, when we’re engaging politicians, community leaders, and regular people in debate, there’s a fair chance they’re positions are decided on a whim, not on rationality or because of the effects on themselves or others. Even most people’s personal political positions, in all likelihood, are merely symbolic, like the colors on the feathers of a bird.  

How are we to navigate such a situation?  

Instead of fighting over each policy point or position, divide politics and civics, not into liberal or conservative positions, but into ones of symbolism and ones with action that bring about results and consequences. 

Or put more succinctly and practically: admire the political plumage of the peacock but focus more on the judicial jaws of the jaguar. 

A Step Further into the Wild 

Let’s take this simple observation about our political realities one step further.  

If people largely choose their liberal or conservative positions based on which group they want to show they belong to… what does that mean for the long list of political theories penned throughout history? 

They might be as useful as a fantasy book. 

I’ve even seen evidence, academic and personal experience, to suggest that the effective distinction between public organizations and private is also largely an illusion. Is it possible that many theories about how economies might work or what the right way of organizing society are themselves merely symbolic? What about the decisions of politicians? 

Clearly some decisions in this untamed wilderness have consequences. 

But we certainly have to ask, how many are themselves simply for show? Or made after the fact to take credit for something that’s already happened, essentially putting the cart before the horse? 

Could it be that all the bluster on TV by politicians, all the debates, probably even half the decisions… amount to nothing more than an attraction at the circus? 

If this is the case, we are far from obligated to take any of it seriously anymore. Or at least, not the parts that have no impact on our lives. 

The Summit at World’s End 

Now, take a look across the landscape again.  

Although our beliefs serve an important function, namely, broadcasting our belonging to the herd of our choice, they aren’t something we always have to take seriously when other people are stating them. It also means that many decisions which humans believe are important might not be greatly affecting our real world.  

As a political animal yourself, you’re probably able to even see this with big picture facts, such as amount of political engagement or action others are willing to take. In the United States? Yeah, the far majority of people take no civic action whatsoever. Like zero. Zip. None.

When they do, it is mostly local over national or international engagement. Or put more simply, that which is most likely to impact their lives and which they are able to impact in turn. We’re even rapidly approaching a situation, from the previous link, where regular people don’t identify with any particular party at all. 

Now, while you’re looking out over this landscape from our summit in history, what strikes you

For me, it’s primarily the dynamics between animals and their packs. And the balance, or lack thereof, of power between them. 

You’ll also note that most animals simply want to be left alone, while striving to raise and protect their young.  

Sure, the variation between beasts is fascinating. The speed of the cheetah, or in this case, the ability of the elite class to purge an individual, is breathtaking. Or take the means by which two different animals, the fox and the badger, might join together in ways we might not have imagined possible at first to catch dinner. Or in this case, how the corporate, nonprofit, and the political worlds have all but merged into one ruling class. 

From our safe point on this summit, we can see that what matters most is not the civic bickering. But instead, who our allies and enemies are and how we adapt to the realities of how they affect each other.  

In the Belly of the Beast 

Of course, you cannot simply stay up on the summit forever. Political pragmatism is not a theory, as much as it is a way of doing business. And sooner or later, we must return to the landscape below. 

So, how might we put our political pragmatism to work?  

  • Separate symbolic chatter from actionable positions  

Since a fair number of politicians today will literally say anything, you can mostly discard any beliefs they profess to have. Make sure not to discard all symbolic gestures. After all, your pack uses them too. But keep them in perspective.  

  • Focus on more practical decision-making  

Whether you’re a public figure yourself or simply a regular guy on the street, use your assessment of the civic situation to prioritize decisions that will result in real consequences in people’s lives. 

  • Keep from moralizing every political or civic decision 

In today’s world, people are prone to treating every issue as if it were a moral war. Although some situations do amount to a great deal, many are not worth dying for. Often it is less about who’s right, and more about which hills are worth your time fighting for. Prioritize your decisions, actions, and your symbolic gestures. 

  • Determine the pack you’ll run with 

Chances are, as a political animal, you’re far less of a solitary wolf than you imagine. The far, far majority of political animals need a pack they can rely on. Find yours based on the values, beliefs, symbolism, and actions members hold dear. 

  • Regularly travel to your highest summit 

At least today and is common in failing empires, social cohesion is coming apart. So, how much you know your political environment is vital in staying ahead of the game and making informed decisions

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