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.



  1. Lisa Lipman April 26, 2017 at 9:28 pm

    I still think that Sanders’ thinking about the abortion issue is flawed in fundamental ways. First, his thinking completely ignores the economic dimensions of the decision to choose to have a baby or not. The economic impact of the decision (e.g., finishing school vs. not finishing school, landing out of the workforce or not and the attendant class consequences) is summarized in an Op Ed in today’s NY Times. For someone who thinks economics is key, Sanders seems oblivious to what is a key economic decision for women, especially those who are single, one that will have tremendous and lasting effects on their economic well-being for the rest of their lives.

    Second, I think his analysis misses the point: the pro-choice position is the role of the government in making decisions that, according to Roe v. Wade and its progeny, are left to the woman and her doctor, not the state, during the pre-viability time of a pregnancy.

    Third, if one wants to talk about the “pragmatic” aspects of the pro-choice movement, it is necessary to address the lack of access to the right to choose now present in many states. As a “pragmatic” matter, this is not a right that can be readily exercised.

    Fourth, while Roe v. Wade is a problematic decision in a variety of ways, what is now apparent is that it will be overruled by the anti-choice majority of the Supreme Court. The decision will then revert to the states, and many states, including NY, do not have the votes to keep abortion legal. It will depend on whether there is a governor who will veto anti-abortion legislation.

    Finally, I agree that it is difficult to talk about abortion. I note that nothing prevents someone who does not want to have an abortion from being a Democrat. The issue is whether that individual wishes to translate his or her individual beliefs about abortion into legislation that will infringe on the equally strongly held beliefs of those who favor the right to make their own decisions regarding their own unwanted pregnancies.

    • tonygreco April 28, 2017 at 11:50 am

      I agree that Sanders seems not to appreciate the economic dimensions of the abortion rights issue. I also agree with your points 2, 3 and 5, but see no reason to doubt that Sanders would agree as well. As to Roe, I cling to the maybe slender hope that it can survive. It depends on the continued physical viability of the three oldest justices over the next four years (hopefully no more than four).

  2. Jeffrey Herrmann April 28, 2017 at 3:17 am

    The anti-abortion position is almost always predicated on the religious belief that a god injects an immortal soul into the zygote at the instant that the sperm penetrates the ovum. That is the source of the claim that every zygote is a precious human being. It is a theological belief, not a rational belief.
    Thus, the anti-abortion crowd seeks to impose its religious beliefs on every woman, using the mechanism of government to accomplish that religious tyranny. Among its many other evils, medical, social, economic, etc., anti-abortion legislation is a violation of freedom of conscience.

    • tonygreco April 28, 2017 at 11:42 am

      I believe that at least until fetal viability there is no substantial argument to be made against abortion except on religious grounds, and no one has the right to impose their religious preferences on the rest of us. (I do also believe that abortion should remain legal even beyond the point of viability, but reasonable people can disagree about this without regard to religious belief.)

      • Jeffrey Herrmann April 29, 2017 at 2:07 am

        Just curious, Tony: What do you say to the argument that the line should be drawn when sentience or consciousness arises, not when viability is attained?

        • tonygreco April 29, 2017 at 11:42 am

          I mentioned viability because it’s a common benchmark, but I don’t really think it’s relevant to the moral definition of a person. I think the line should be drawn at consciousness, but defining consciousness is tricky. Is even a newborn baby truly conscious in any meaningful way? I’m not sure that it is, but since we have to draw the line somewhere, the most natural and obvious place is at birth. Sentience would be an alternative marker, and something that can be called sentience long precedes anything that can be called consciousness. But sentience without consciousness is not sentience in the way we normally understand it.

  3. Peter Sepulveda April 30, 2017 at 11:47 pm


    Note that Bernie is NOT s socialist, but a New Deal Democrat.

    • tonygreco May 1, 2017 at 10:08 am

      I think that’s an accurate characterization, but he does call himself a socialist.

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