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Can 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 electable candidates.

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 of.

Jack Neefus posts on the DU message board under the username ribofunk.

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