Ideologues and Pragmatists Coexist?
July 11, 2002
By Jack Neefus
There's a whole spectrum of voices within the Democratic
Party. On one hand, congressional Democrats have become so
concerned about winning the next election that many have abandoned
criticism of George W. Bush and voted for bills like the Patriot
Act that anyone with an ounce of respect for the Constitution
should have immediately denounced.
Other Democrats and leftists stake out ideological positions
that seem to be self-defeating. Enough Democrats voted for
Ralph Nader to swing the last presidential election. Even
though that election showed the importance of winning, many
active and intelligent Democrats still push for a whole range
of secondary policies that have the potential to divide and
alienate swing voters and endanger future elections.
One reason the left is so splintered is that activism is
not the art of the possible, but of the unassailable. It's
difficult to criticize someone for standing on principle.
I am a frequent participant on the Democratic Underground
message board, which includes ideologes and pragmatists among
its membership. I truly believe we are all on the same side,
but our temperaments and approaches are not the same. Politics
and activism are different animals, and result from different
ways of seeing.
In my own politics, my instincts are to be pragmatic. A lot
of my positions are DLC. I support Al Gore. I will work for
On the other hand, I greatly admire radical thought. I am
a fan of Chomsky and of those great Trotskyites on the World
Socialist Website. I go to anti-globalization protests when
I can, and I believe they have accomplished a lot. Bill Clinton's
centrism was infinitely better than Republican leadership,
yet his policies left a lot to be desired for the left. Michael
Moore and Ralph Nader are right to emphasize the number of
areas in which the two parties are the same, even if the degree
of sameness is overstated.
Over the long haul, pragmatism is not always the most effective
way forward. If you look back on the social and political
victories of the last 100 years, they all staked out positions
that seemed politically impossible -- the labor movement,
economic regulation, suffrage, civil rights, feminism, gay
rights, the environment. Early supporters of all these positions
were often considered disruptors, crazies, dreamers, bad examples,
and even obstacles for the politicians who had the ability
to set policy. But all these movements prevailed. Even an
ideologue who causes a political loss now may play a part
in a longer term victory.
Activism demands long-term hope and a belief that transcends
the likely outcome of this year's elections. Strong ideological
postions set a stake in the ground and change the debate.
After ten years of the civil rights movement, not even Jesse
Helms could speak about race in the same way.
There's got to be a way for activists and pragmatists to
coexist and strengthen each other. Incumbent Democrats have
got to run on a platform of conviction and core Democratic
values, even if they have to finesse issues like gun control
or the Pledge on which they may disagree with their constituency.
Greens have got to avoid defeating a Paul Wellstone in pursuit
of a purist agenda that has no representation in Congress.
Division takes its toll. Friction is inevitable, although
it helps to have a thick skin and leave our frustrations behind
when we disagree. But I think we can deal with those differences
here, and I think the Democratic Party can overcome its internal
divisions to win elections on a platform we can all be proud
Jack Neefus posts on the DU message board under the username