Time for Pragmatism


Notice anything interesting about this map?   The US is in a lighter shade of blue then New England, which is off colored and unlabeled.   This map is from a Republican guide to finding one’s Senators and representatives.   To the GOP New England appears to be persona non grata.

Indeed, with a few exceptions (Senators from Maine and New Hampshire) the region has become very Democratic.  New England along with the upper Northwest were the only regions where white males supported Obama in the election.

Not only that, but New England Republicans are distrusted in their own party.  They are often pro-choice, moderate and labeled RINOs (Republican in name only) by ideological conservatives.   Maine Senators Collins and Snowe voted to acquit President Clinton after his impeachment, breaking with their party.   Senator Snowe’s retirement this year was in part a reaction to all the anger and partisanship that has overtaken the Senate.   Yes, Maine has a tea party governor, but that’s only because of a three way race in which 39% could win.

Republican Olympia Snowe personified pragmatic conservatism

Former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe personifies pragmatic conservatism, she wants to solve problems and focus on the people, not a set of rules or an ideology

This is interesting because New England does not fit the usual left-right demographic patterns.   Maine is the most white and least diverse state in the union.    New Englanders are pragmatic and rather conservative.   But there is one thing that sets the region apart: ideology is distrusted.  Here in Maine the tea party governor couldn’t get his fellow Republicans to impose a true conservative agenda when they had control of both houses.  Instead they continued the tradition of trying to build consensus, often angering Governor LePage.    I supported President Obama, but voted for many Maine Republicans – it’s not good vs. evil here!

It’s a part of the pragmatism – a sense that the difficult problems we face can’t be addressed by looking to fancy theories and ideologies, but by compromising with a goal of solving problems.   In that New Englanders are more conservative than many Republicans who have a radical ideological world view – to implement ‘true capitalism’ or some other ideologically motivated “solution” to our problems.

Ideologies are seductive.  The present truths in simple terms and make seem like all you have to do to solve our problems is follow the ideological precepts.   People who want to be right, who don’t want to deal with complexity and uncertainty, often find ideologies very comforting.  They are a kind of secular religion, you can interpret the world through an ideology and avoid cognitive dissonance.    As Communism demonstrated, people can cling to ideologies even when it’s absolutely crystal clear that the evidence proves them wrong.

An example of that taken to the extreme can be seen in this over the top interview of Alex Jones by Piers Morgan:

Ideologues can ignore reality because its so complex that you can always find some other reason to explain what went wrong.   Communist ideologues blamed the West or others for making the ‘path to socialism’ more difficult.    Capitalist ideologues embrace the market, and find reasons to dismiss evidence that shows markets can be inhumane and corrupted when not regulated.

I don’t think Republicans or Democrats outside New England are all ideologues.  Rather, media plays a role to socialize people to embrace ideological thinking by creating a narrative that makes it seem natural.  Powerful corporate actors like the “Club for Growth” use money to manipulate the process and create an ideological political climate.

The classic example of media narrative is the last election.   On the right there was a widespread belief that Romney would easily beat Obama this year, a belief held by even people high up in the Romney campaign.   The narrative seemed logical: the polls over sample Democrats, Obama’s supporters aren’t as enthused, Republicans are angry and want Obama gone, the 2010 spirit still exists, the media is overstating Obama’s chances because they like him, etc.

If you looked at the evidence it was pretty clear that those arguments were weak – that the expectation had to be that Obama would win.  However, FOX news, talk radio, conservative blogs, and media outlets on the right stated that case over and over like it was a fact, and then added that the mainstream media was untrustworthy, in the pocket of Obama and even trying to demoralize the right.   In other words, rather than rationally analyze the narrative, they found excuses on why not to take the counter arguments seriously.

This happens on many issues – climate change, taxes, the economy,  guns, terrorism, the debt ceiling.   There is an ideology-driven understanding of reality that is spread by talk radio, FOX, and a host of blogs and pundits that is designed not to analyze a perspective but to promote and defend it because it is deemed true – the ideology is unquestioned.

This penchant for ideology-based understandings of reality is destroying the Republican party.    I do not believe John Boehner or Mitch McConnell are ideologues, but they are held captive by the fringes of their party.   Moreover, there are signs many on the left want to emulate the ideologues on the right by embracing partisan war.   That has to stop.  It is time for pragmatism,  pragmatism is the enemy of ideology.

Ideologues claim they are embracing principle, but that’s an illusion.  They are embracing simple rules.  Reality is complex and simple principles don’t work.   Context matters, it changes the meaning of every act.   Ideologues left and right will use terms like freedom, social justice, equality and even peace to give their causes the air of moral authority.  But beware any theory-driven understanding of a complex reality, and beware of those who interpret everything through their ideological lens rather than comparing and contrasting different perspectives.

Pragmatism is messy, but it’s the only way forward in difficult times.

  1. #1 by lbwoodgate on January 10, 2013 - 14:31

    Ideologies are like bumper stickers – they’re cheap and simplistic (read SIMPLE-MINDED)

  2. #2 by Jeff Fordham on January 10, 2013 - 21:47

    David Frum wrote a good op-ed last year about how even some of his most intelligent Republican friends were accepting and spouting this anti Obama narrative…( no matter how silly)…….and he was stymied as to when the disconnect from logical thinking and pragmatism had taken over their senses. Its truly amazing in my book……………I can see the how the low information voter is easily swayed but to hear supposedly brilliant people like Jack Welsh declare that “the chicago guys” ….can’t win…….. so they manipulate the DOL into posting “fake numbers” I find interesting. I think much of this narrative comes from deep seated racial anxiety from the fact that we have a popular black president and growing minorities nationwide.

    Its a scary future for many of them………..like Sean said to me over at ROARR…..a few days after the elections in a cry baby manner ……….” we……(i.e. conservatives) no longer have a seat at the table”………I almost went ballistic on him….but calmed myself down……. as I enjoyed the ass thrashing that he felt. Not to be mean….I do like Sean and respect him……..but I have absolutely no sympathy for any of them. Reality bites for some……….especialy when you ignore it.

    Thanks again for the great post Scott…………..and LB…I still want to post a response to your great piece on the lack of awareness by people caught in the digital age………..I have some interesting observations I want to tell you about.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on January 10, 2013 - 22:48

      Thanks Jeff – the talk radio jocks know how to mix a simple ideology and an appeal to emotion that can get people to not only believe a ridiculous narrative, but to feel passionately connected to it. Dangerous stuff.

  3. #4 by List of X on January 11, 2013 - 01:52

    I can understand how people become ideologues from pragmatists – that’s because the appeal of simple solutions is simply irresistible. It’s much harder to move in the opposite direction, because in order to understand complex solutions, you’d have to learn new things, and ideologies are very effective in discouraging any kind of learning.

  4. #5 by augustamainemike on January 11, 2013 - 08:12

    Boy, you said it, Scott. As a life-long Republican, establishment pig RINOs like Snowe and Collins make me want to vomit. I’m ecstatic that Snowe is finally gone (I voted for D’Amboise in that primary, and voted for Danny Dalton in the general election), and look forward to Collins either resigning or losing in the primary (yeah, I guess I’d vote for Poliquin in the primary against her) or general election in 2014.

    For the record though, I wasn’t keen on the establishment pig RINO Summers either, but rather saw Summers not being appreciably different than Snowe or Angus (or even Dill, for that matter). To hell with them all, I say. Give me a hard-right Christian evangelical conservative to vote for, or they’ll not get my vote (and I WILL vote, for sure).

    • #6 by Scott Erb on January 11, 2013 - 08:16

      Yes, Mike, and you’ll have a secure 20-30% of the vote as the culture progresses and leaves you behind. I think your views are anachronistic – the culture wars are over, and your side lost. But…Danny Dalton? From Syriana? OK, gotta respect that at least 😉

  5. #7 by Norbrook on January 11, 2013 - 08:41

    Purists tend to believe in simple solutions, and Mencken’s Razor applies to them: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. ” 😉

  6. #8 by Titfortat on January 15, 2013 - 12:33

    Interesting that you use the Piers Morgan video. I found that interview fascinating because several of the points made by the gun owner were quite bang on. The unfortunate part for him was that he was over the top emotionally(not stable). You can bet Piers and his group chose him specifically for that reason. He is so much easier to dismiss for the majority of us based on his antics. His questions on the other hand make you pause for a moment. Oh wait, he yelled again, pause gone. 😉

    • #9 by Scott Erb on January 15, 2013 - 13:45

      Well, I think they choose him because he’s the one who started or really promoted the ‘deport Piers Morgan’ petition. I thought it funny he mentioned “Gladio” without explaining it. We were just covering that in my Italian Politics unit (Winter term course on German and Italian politics).

  7. #10 by Titfortat on January 15, 2013 - 14:15


    You must admit that not all his ideas are as nutty as he would appear.

  8. #12 by Titfortat on January 16, 2013 - 14:45

    If you believe there can be a 1%, then it is pretty easy to believe there can and are conspiracies. 😉

  9. #13 by Titfortat on January 17, 2013 - 20:57

    Conpiracies…………….sometimes the youth get it much better than the aged. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: