Pragmatism is the habit of assessing situations according to their likely practical effects, rather than in accordance with a theoretic framework. Politics at its best is the practice of improving the condition of the people. Therefore pragmatism and politics – contrary to the prejudices of ideologues and fundamentalists the world over – make for very comfortable bedfellows. There is nothing wrong with compromise, so long as you know the principles that can never be compromised. All the great advances of democratic politics involve trade-offs.
When Abraham Lincoln conceded ground and political capital to achieve the legislation that abolished slavery, he was called weak by his opponents. Slaves and their descendants disagreed. More recently, to get his signature healthcare reforms through, President Barack Obama gave several concessions to his Republican opponents. The tens of millions of Americans now benefiting from public healthcare are grateful to him for attaching pragmatism to principle.
There is, then, a long, distinguished and – though it’s the sort of word only used by people involved in politics – progressive tradition of American pragmatism, which crosses the political divide, and which has notched several landmark victories. Perhaps this should inspire Bernie Sanders, the socialist Vermonter, to do the honourable and correct thing this week and throw his support – and, crucially, supporters – behind Hillary Clinton’s effort to take the White House.
There are no more caucuses, and no more primaries. Mr Sanders is not trying to woo super-delegates. Yes, he still has a platform to address large rallies; and yes, his vast following would be disappointed if he colluded with the very lady that he has spent months sparring. But when Mr Sanders says, as he did last week, that his goal is to ensure Donald Trump is defeated, and defeated badly, it behoves anyone interested in getting things done, rather than organising big meetings, to make the case that he now work with Ms Clinton to defeat Mr Trump. That doesn’t mean forfeiting his principles, or slipping into hypocrisy: it simply means recognising that the optimal way to influence America’s future is to keep Mr Trump out of the White House.
Pragmatism in aid of principle is itself a principle worth upholding. The sooner this admirable Vermonter concedes defeat and asks his supporters to throw their passion, time, money and votes behind Hillary Clinton, the sooner he can ensure his was a campaign that improved the condition of the people in his beloved America.
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