America’s distinctive contribution to philosophy is called pragmatism. Like all notions that have been marinated and masticated by generations of academic philosophers, this movement has been minced to bits. At the beginning, although, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pragmatism was a reaction by the likes of C.S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey to the idealistic philosophies of Europe. Truth is not to be found in some palace of the mind apart from the world, they argued. Rather, the truth of an idea is measurable by its effects.
Well, duh, you might say. And that’s sort of the point: All great and true philosophies eventually seem self-evident after enough experience. Pragmatism advanced largely because its alternative – analytical idealism – has been such a grotesque practical failure. Over the past century, grand theories of racial supremacy, nationalist destiny and communist utopia were repudiated by their terrible real-life effects. Even the more recent notion that the whole world hungers for American-style democracy has run aground on the reef of reality.
Most Americans aren’t philosophers, thank goodness, but we are a nation of pragmatists. And so, despite the snap to her zinger, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was out of the mainstream when she shrugged off criticism during the second round of Democratic debates by saying: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
An American president ought to care deeply about the effects of her ideas – whether she can actually do the things she promises and whether her idealistic “should-dos” are also pragmatic “could-dos.” Former congressman John Delaney of Maryland was hardly out of place at a forum of would-be presidents when he expressed practical concern that hospitals can’t survive if all their services are reimbursed at Medicare rates, as Warren proposes to do.
Asking what works is an essential element of the Progressive tradition. Reformers of the early 20th century steeped themselves in data and tested their theories relentlessly in the laboratory of the streets.
The original Progressives were incrementalists and compromisers. They built coalitions by offering – and then delivering – concrete results.
Pragmatism has never been more urgently needed in American politics. The widespread loss of faith in government reflects a half-century of overpromising by politicians with Big Ideas.
What I don’t understand is why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the U.S. simply to ignore questions about real-world realities and promise fights without explaining how to win them. Reality is not going to bend to a new shape come 2021 just because a President Sanders shouts at it, or a President Warren fights with it.
On the other hand, if their ideas are sound and their promises are true, there’s no better way to demonstrate that than through diligent testing and vigorous challenges. Contrary to what we heard again and again in the debates, that’s not a “Republican talking point.”
It’s an American conviction.
• David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post.