On Pragmatism and Purity

Or:

Lets-Be-careful-Out-There

Following up on a recent Facebook thread where I tried to trouble the “pragmatist” v “purist” binary.

Russell Berman, in “House Democrats Turn on One of Their Own” (Atlantic, 2/7), covers the Congressional race in IL’s 3rd district, focusing on the Democratic primary (since the GOP is going to nominate an actual Nazi).

The positions of “moderate” incumbent Dan Lipinski and “progressive” Marie Newman do seem quite different; Berman focuses on Lipinski’s anti-abortion position (about which he’s rather open and has still won in the district for years) as well as his vote against the ACA and slow acceptance of LGBT equality. Newman is, by all accounts, somewhat more progressive on those issues. Since I can’t vote there, the specifics of those positions aren’t my concern.

I am, however, concerned with the way Berman closes.

The Lipinski-Newman primary next month won’t determine the balance of power in Congress, but it can provide an early clue to what kind of Democrat voters want in the age of Trump—the pragmatist or the purist.

Based on what he details, there’s simply no support for this distinction. Nothing suggests that Lipinski is skilled at reaching productive compromises on legislation that improves people’s lives, or that Newman is less skilled; nor is there evidence that Newman is less so. There isn’t evidence that Newman is more dogmatic about her positions than Lipinski, and honestly it’s hard to imagine someone more dogmatic about a position than any anti-choice person I’ve ever heard of–I don’t know any anti-choicers whose opposition isn’t based on what they take to be inviolable religious dogma. If that’s not an example of purity, I have literally no clue what that word means.

The fact that Lipinski has some conventionally Democratic stances and some conventionally not-Democratic stances doesn’t necessarily make him a “pragmatist.” It does mean he’s got different positions on things that don’t line up with what other people in his party think, but that’s not what “pragmatist” means, nor “moderate” (if you subscribe to some lefty and some righty positions, those don’t average out to moderate).

In last week’s Facebook thread, I personalized the question about the litmus test for “purity” by pointing that I get critiqued for being both too “pragmatic” and too “purist” for the same positions. Berman helps to clarify what I was trying to get at…

…which is that conflating the substance of somebody’s positions with their willingness to compromise on those positions in order to function in a deliberative system isn’t helpful. Likewise, plenty of self-identified “moderates” and “centrists” have claimed their position as the moral high ground (i.e., “pure”) by writing off everybody further to left or right as “extremists.”

This isn’t to say that dogmatists and sellouts don’t exist. But putting the names “purist” and “pragmatist” to those characters is problematic, and expanding the scope of those labels to include people who aren’t either of those is worse.

 

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