A rejection of the false binary narrative in politics
Illustration by Olga Grlic.
By Joshua Peters
We last discussed the necessity to embrace a political philosophy and the dialectic of rational discourse to effectively manage diverse viewpoints. Now, we must clarify what is meant by the political ideology of pragmatism and its entailment.
As previously mentioned, an ideology gives a political philosophy its locomotion. It seeks to put the ideas derived from political philosophy into action. The political ideology we seek to make real and maintain is pragmatism under the guise of liberalism. In brief, pragmatism within the framework of liberalism can be generally described as endorsing the notion that a well-ordered political system is oriented around individual liberty, social equality, human dignity, and rational discourse to facilitate reforms grounded in practical solutions.
Pragmatism, when applied to politics, is compatible with liberalism and serves as a mechanism to animate liberal values. John Stuart Mill reminds us that a “party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” Mill envisions a well-ordered liberal society as requiring both a conservative disposition and a progressive disposition. This sets the foundation for our political ideology for which we will build upon pragmatic solutions. In addition to Mill’s traditional analysis, I will introduce the disposition of libertarianism.
The political ideologies of conservatism and progressivism appear to emerge organically from a political philosophy (however, libertarianism is unique to liberalism). As Mill alluded to in “On Liberty,” conservatism tends to orient itself around the maximization of law and order. Its disposition is one of security and tradition, often looking to history as a guide for what the future entails. In contrast, Mill suggests that progressivism is willing to discard history if it conflicts with truth, reason, and modern sensibilities. Progressivism advocates the idea that history does not have the final word on what the future entails. Hence, progressivism seeks maximum political reforms as human understanding progresses through scientific inquiry.
Though conservatism and progressivism differ in methods, they share a common goal: individual liberty. Let’s delve into conservatism and progressivism before turning our attention to libertarianism.
Bracketing contemporary partisan opinions for a moment reveals the charitable view of conservatism rooted in stoicism. At its best, conservatism embodies stoic virtues such as prudence, temperance, wisdom, and courage. Here, conservatives perceive a commitment to duty and virtue as liberalism par excellence. For the conservative, true freedom is not the freedom to actualize desires but rather the freedom from those things that deprive the individual of self-control and self-determination.
This stoic sense of self-control and self-determination is what renders conservatism an appealing disposition. The conservative contends that, regardless of the misfortunes an individual may face, they remain in control. The conservative teaches us not to let external forces dictate our attitudes. When individuals act with a sense of duty and virtue, they maintain control over themselves at all times. By doing so, they can rationally navigate facts and circumstances to better maximize their personal well-being—mentally and materially. Here, the power of the conservative disposition becomes evident as it aligns itself with duty and virtue. It provides individuals with a sense of self-control, furnishing them with the cognitive toolkit to navigate their lives during challenging times. Notably, this forms the foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy.
If conservatism represents freedom from forces that undermine an individual’s sense of self-determination, progressivism, on the other hand, embodies the freedom to achieve self-determination. Again, setting aside any preconceived notions, a charitable understanding of progressivism recognizes it as deeply concerned with individual liberty. Progressivism seeks to advance Enlightenment ideas in science, economics, and politics to enhance the human condition and maximize human freedom. Therefore, progressivism is a direct outcome of Enlightenment thinking, driven by the pursuit of truth, justice, equality, and human felicity.
Progressivism defines itself, in part, as the pursuit of happiness. According to the progressive perspective, human felicity can be achieved through knowledge, reason, science, and technology. For progressives, freedom means the opportunity to attain what Aristotle referred to as eudaimonia, which is Greek for “good spirit” or happiness. The progressive contends that this goal can be realized through education, social reforms, and providing legal protections for individual rights.
The cosmopolitan nature of progressivism makes it an extremely attractive disposition for a global community seeking to establish long-term political relations and social welfare. Progressivism distinctly acknowledges the ever-present reality of human suffering, and it endeavors to mitigate it by establishing both domestic and international institutions with the aim of advancing freedom and happiness for all.
Now, it is important to note at this juncture the direct dispositional offspring of liberalism—libertarianism. Unlike conservatism and progressivism, which are influenced by cultural forces at particular times in Western history, libertarianism is an outgrowth of liberalism. Libertarianism distinguishes itself from its dispositional sisters by being entirely centered on individual freedom and autonomy. Unlike conservatism and progressivism, libertarianism adopts a romantic, principled attitude towards liberty. If conservatism is ‘freedom from such and such,’ and progressivism is ‘freedom to such and such,’ then libertarianism is ‘freedom in and unto itself.’ Here, we observe libertarians seeking a much deeper adherence to liberty, which may be overlooked under conservatism as it emphasizes duty and virtue and under progressivism as it emphasizes knowledge and happiness. Accordingly, libertarians tend to take a hard line on issues in defense of individual freedom and autonomy. This unyielding commitment to—and oftentimes romantic view of—individual liberty makes libertarianism a very charismatic disposition that garners respect and reverence.
Now that we have provided an account of the three main political dispositions within our pragmatic ideology relevant to American politics, it should be noted that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. While individuals may naturally gravitate towards a particular political ideology based on their personal experiences and political viewpoints, it is not necessary for an individual to define themselves exclusively within one of the three from the perspective of personal disposition. One can have a deep love for individual freedom, a desire for the stoic discipline of self-control, and an appreciation for the clarifying force of scientific reasoning. What determines someone’s ideological leaning is mostly a matter of personality, their stage in personal growth, and the overall political direction of society given the composition of prevailing issues. However, within a pragmatic ideological standpoint, they need not be fixed or committed to in isolation.
While individuals may lean towards specific political ideologies, the Forward Party need not do so. The Forward Party should function as a moderator, allowing community members to consider ideas from various ideologies and cross-reference them with the current state of affairs to determine which is better suited to address present issues. Does the situation call for a more prudent answer, drawing guidance from history? Is it a matter of principle, emphasizing the right to freedom of expression? Or should judgment be based on the best scientific information available to maximize the best outcome for the greatest number? In this context, Americans are best served by a liberal pragmatic view of the world, where the most useful idea is selected irrespective of its ideological origins.
In a sense, the Forward Party can have its dollar and spend it too. Collectively, it does not dictate a top-down ideological position; instead, it allows its members to engage with one another based on their personal ideological preferences. This approach helps determine which ideological position is the most useful for addressing the current political state of affairs.