A Brief Political Catechesis on Ideologues, Pragmatists and Principles

Sometimes I think I’m an ideologue, sometimes I think I’m a pragmatist, but at all times I wish I was principle centered. So I tried to explore what each of those things is … Let me know what you think.

How many groups are there in politics?

Let’s say there are three: Ideologues, pragmatists and principle-centered people.

How are they distinguished in their vision of the truth?

Ideologues think they own the truth. They say: “If you disagree with me you oppose me!”

Pragmatists see truth as a spectrum. They say: “Don’t go too far to the right or left!”

Principle-centered people see truth as an immovable rock available to all.  They say: “The truth is here; let’s move to where we can all grab it.”

How are they distinguished in their use of the truth?

Ideologues wield truth like a weapon.

Pragmatists dodge truth like a plague.

Principle-centered people embrace truth like a life raft.

How are they distinguished in their definition of the truth?

Ideologues mistake a part of the truth for the whole.  “Man is primarily an economic being!” say Marxists and free-market consumerists, both. “Man is primarily a sexual being!”say libertines and Puritans. “Man’s opinion of God is fundamental!” say theocrats and secularists.

Pragmatists aren’t interested in truth. They are interested in expediency. “Truth? What is Truth?” said Pilate, and, brilliantly, The Passion of the Christ has him add: “I’ve been putting down rebellions in this rotten outpost for 11  years. … [Caesar] swore that the next time the blood would be mine. That is my truth!”

Principle-centered people realize that we are not reducible to one dimension of ourselves, because we are part of something greater than ourselves. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” a principle-centered man once wrote, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Are they separated according to relativism and absolutism?

Yes and no.

Ideologues make what is absolute relative and what is relative absolute. They say: “Religious liberty? That’s relative! Contraception coverage? That’s absolute!” -or- “Sexual freedom? That’s absolute! The definition of marriage? That’s relative!”

Pragmatists make all things relative — except their own interests. They say “Religious freedom? Contraceptive coverage? Show me who gets mad under each scenario, and how mad they get.” -or- “Gay marriage? I’ll be against it as long as the polls are against it.”

Principle-centered people try to distinguish absolutes from relatives.  “Religious freedom? That’s one of the basic freedoms of humanity. Contraceptive coverage? There is no right involved; no reason to privilege that.” –or- “Sexual freedom? That has always been dependent on lots of other factors. Marriage? That’s the bedrock of society —it exists to procreate and raise children, and bond one generation to the next.”

What relationship does each kind have with political parties?

Ideologues have a codependent relationship with political parties. They hold parties hostage to get them to do what they want, while the parties keep them around by promising but never quite delivering what they want.

Pragmatists are very partisan. Their party is how they get things done, and so their party becomes their ideology, and loyalty to the party becomes a first principle. In a partisan world, pragmatists rule — quietly, from deep inside big gray buildings.

Principle-centered people can also be partisan — when parties serve important principles (such as “We stick up for the little guy!”). But they abandon parties when they undermine important principles (when they say, “On second thought, the little guy has no right to life.”) Too often, though, principled people change their principles instead of their party — because people are more likely to be loyal to other people than to truths.

What characterizes each group’s political action?

Ideologues overreach. They don’t just want the option to fund contraceptives — they want to demand everyone, even religious organizations, do so. They don’t just promote “LG rights” (lesbian, gay) — they load up their cause with “LGBTQ rights” (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning). They go beyond the reasonable — “That guy should be allowed in his partner’s hospital room” — to the unreasonable: “That guy should be allowed in the women’s bathroom.”

Pragmatists under-reach. They don’t look at the world in terms of what should be done and what should not be done … they see it in terms of what can be done and what cannot be done. They grant concessions to ideologues, and are constantly surprised that the concession did nothing to satisfy the ideologue. Why do these people still want more?

Principle-centered people lose in the short term and win in the long term. They shrug off unimportant issues and stand firm on important ones.  “I care a lot about many issues that I don’t necessarily vote on,” they say.  “On the other hand, I must vote to protect what is fundamental — for instance, religious liberty and the institution of marriage.”

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