Underlying all political discourse is a certain assumption of what is practical. The contours of which are seen as not only natural but obvious. These artificial contours are erected by those in power and serve only one real purpose: the preserving of power and limiting of progress. Without fail, arguments for pragmatism have slowed progress: it was not pragmatic to abolish slavery, it was not pragmatic to grant universal suffrage, it was not pragmatic to end child labor, it was not pragmatic to limit the work week to 40 hours. You see the pattern. Those in power use pragmatism to stifle grassroots movements that push towards justice.
The 2018 mid-term election saw a wave of progressives elected to Congress such as Rashida Talib, Alexandria Ocosio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar (notably Women of Color are on the leading edge of progressive politics) who are pushing the conversation of what’s possible and attempting to redefine the contours of what’s possible. This fundamental recalibration is terrifying to Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives alike. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - a democratic socialist who refused to take corporate money and is unabashedly vocal about support for working people- won her primary Nancy Pelosi said it should not be “viewed as something” as she attempted to downplay the significance and temper the excitement growing on the progressive left. Instead of embracing the progressive left many Democrats are urging a more centrist approach. They claim that pragmatism is the key to victory as they court the moderate “swing” voter in places like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida. These battle lines are being drawn within in the Democratic party as much as outside it. Ilhan Omar has dominated news for her unabashed critiques of Israel and Saudi Arabia, two long-time seemingly untouchable US allies. Most recently, while speaking at an event at SXSW Ocasio-Cortez stated “Moderate is not a stance. It's an attitude towards life of, like, meh.” Her event outdrew presidential candidates. The idea that progressive politics does not resonate is simply false.
If progressive politics is popular, and presents a viable path for victory, not to mention the improvement of living standards for literally millions of people, why is there a debate around embracing policy? While pragmatism is undoubtedly useful the insistence that progressive politics is not pragmatic betrays a much more pernicious motive: the protection of social status and privilege.
When we look back at the history of pragmatism, power and progress, the story deepens: it was not pragmatic to abolish slavery until Northerners found abolition pragmatic in order to compete in the open marketplace with the South. It was not pragmatic to grant universal suffrage until it was for certain political parties who saw a voting bloc they could align with. It was not pragmatic to end child labor until such labor could be replaced with machines or outsourced to other nations children. It was not pragmatic to limit the work week to 40 hours until Ford Motor Company realized a 40 hour work week increased productivity. Not only does pragmatism slow grassroots movements, such movements often need to meet a certain bar of pragmatism for those in power to be pushed forward.
Let’s examine more examples of this playing out. Take the year 2010 with the passage of the Affordable Care Act - arguably the largest step towards universal health care taken in the U.S., but also arguably very pragmatic for insurance companies, investors and the healthcare lobby to get behind. Next let’s jump to the legalization of gay marriage. The position of Democrats swung drastically once they realized the way, particularly gay white men, could further the democratic party’s status quo. Herein lies the real issue: we lack the political will to support policies and pass legislation that first and foremost benefits working people and people of color.
We have fully embraced capitalism and white supremacy to the point that the idea of crafting policies that place people over profits and aim to rectify our history of racist colonial violence are dismissed off hand. Democrats will say they don’t engage with these ideas because they are non-starters with voters. This is only true if you ignore the largest voting bloc in the country: non-voters. In a 2017 Pew Research study the most commonly cited reason people gave for not voting was “dislike of candidates or issues” many of these people are working class and people of color, the very people progressive policies would likely engage. Issues such as student debt abolition, universal health-care, a livable wage, and other progressive issues consistently garner the support of a majority of Americans. There is only one reason why Democrats aren’t embracing progressive policies and the excitement they generate: they are scared of losing their social status and privilege.
Critical theory has a name for this, it is interest convergence. Whether we are talking about school desegregation or ending the war on drugs very little happens without the powerful seeing their own self-interest in redefining the contours. The good thing is: progressive policies benefit everybody, so interest convergence is something we need not fear. Especially those of us with privileged identities, we must point out the ways we, as the late Senator Wellstone said, do better when we all do better.
There is need, here, to discuss a commonly cited retort to this argument: the Tea Party. Weren’t they redefining the contours? Weren’t they poor? Doesn’t that undercut the argument? No, not really. The Tea Party advocated for a return to previous contours. They were regressive. That is not the same as what progressives are doing because it doesn’t threaten those in power. It appeals to them. There is, relatively speaking, little resistance to regression from the halls of power.
Now is no time for regression. Now is no time for moderation. The contours of society are changing, they are moving towards justice. Let us be brave and build the world we deserve.
Ryan Williams-Virden & Ian McLaughlin