It is commonplace in our political discourse to treat the words “ideological” and “pragmatic” as practically antonyms. According to the conventional wisdom, pragmatists understand that social and political change is usually gradual and incremental; they keenly appreciate the practical obstacles to change and willingly work within and around them in order to get things done. Ideologues, motivated by large visions of an ideal society, often lose sight of what is realistically achievable in the world as it is. I have problems with this formulation. One, which I won’t go into now, is that pragmatism is itself often an ideology in disguise. But I also object to the idea that pragmatism and ideology are somehow mutually exclusive. It is possible and admirable to be a pragmatic ideologue,* though it involves an often tricky balancing act.
Bernie Sanders has been performing that balancing act for most of his political career. He is clearly an ideologue—a self-avowed democratic socialist in a country where socialism has long been a dirty word. At the same time he has a pretty good sense of practical political limits and possibilities; he wouldn’t be where he is if he didn’t. But even with decades of experience, he sometimes goes off balance. He has had two mishaps recently. In one case, he regained his balance quickly; in the other, it’s not so clear.
The first mishap followed the spectacular near-win of Jon Ossof in the first round of the Georgia 6th Congressional election. Asked for his reaction, Sanders was cool—he wasn’t sure if Ossoff was a progressive, he said. Sanders didn’t elaborate, but we can surmise that Sanders felt that Ossoff, running a relatively centrist campaign in a reddish-purple district, didn’t breathe the kind of populist fire that Sanders likes to see as he strives to revolutionize the Democratic Party. Facing criticism from Democrats for disparaging a major achievement of the anti-Trump resistance, Sanders soon clarified, affirming his unqualified support for Ossoff in the coming run-off election. So, Sanders pragmatically re-balanced his initial ideological reflex action.
The second mishap involved the candidacy of Heath Mello for Mayor of Omaha, Nebraska. Mello had taken anti-abortion positions years ago as a state legislator. It’s not clear that Sanders knew that ahead of time, but he responded to criticisms of his endorsement of Mello with an unabashedly pragmatic argument:
The truth is that in some conservative states there will be candidates that are popular candidates who may not agree with me on every issue. I understand it. That’s what politics is about….If we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day we’re going to need Democratic control over the House and the Senate, and state governments all over this nation. And we have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda. But I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.”
Sounds very sensible, but I think not sufficiently attuned to the ideological importance of abortion rights. For a great many Democrats, a woman’s right to choose is fundamental, not just “one issue” among many on which we can agreeably decide to disagree. So, while I think Sanders is right that anti-abortion Democrats shouldn’t be ostracized, he needed to be more explicit and thoughtful about the dilemma they pose. He could have stressed, for example, that he would support an anti-abortion Democrat only where the only alternatives are clearly worse, which will almost invariably be the case in partisan contests. (That is indeed the case in Omaha. Mello has said that despite his personal convictions he now doesn’t support restrictions on abortion. This position is similar to that taken by Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate.) Even Bernie Sanders, it seems, can sometimes take pragmatism too far.
* Though he was ideologically abhorrent to me, I always saw Ronald Reagan as a model of a pragmatic ideologue.