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Radicalizing the Mainstream: Pragmatism versus PRIGmatism

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For those who don't share my English lit major's fondness for escaping our troubled world into Victorian novels (definitely NOT untroubled but differently troubled), let me define one of my key terms. See, one of the stock character types of the English Victorian novel--though often fleshed out quite nicely there--is the "prig," someone who's dogmatic, stuck-up, self-righteous, and inflexible.

Now, in a sense, Victorian writers did their age a profound disservice, for the extent to which the prig character figures there makes it seem that priggishness--a clearly unattractive human quality--was an essential and characteristic trait of their times. I'd like to argue, on the contrary, that priggishness among English Victorians was perhaps no more common than it is in human societies generally, but was bound to assume an unusual, perhaps unprecedented SIGNIFICANCE there because--if we may temporally adjust Bob Dylan--"The times, they WERE a-changin'." An age that spawned--among many other developments--widespread Marxism, anarchism, Darwinism (both biological and social), atheism, agnosticism, Freudianism, and pragmatism itself was hardly a hidebound era averse to change. These facts are precisely what make for the deep, lasting interest of the English Victorian novel--and its equally intriguing coevals in Russia and on the Continent. The "prig" was simply an important common (and extremely natural) reaction to "so much God-damn change."

But the pragmatism--and "prigmatism"--I'm concerned with here are specifically political, so Victorian times may by no means the proper era to which to date their parentage. Sticking strictly to formal philosophy, pragmatism per se IS a Victorian era product, associated with the Americans William James and Charles Sanders Peirce. However, a certain freedom from dogmatism and willingness to experiment has always, for good reason, characterized the political sphere, and I think we're totally justified in discerning an early pragmatic streak (for far different ENDS) in, for example, both Aristotle and Machiavelli. But I feel that pragmatic streak reached it socially beneficial zenith in American Founders like Madison and Jefferson and their English exemplars and predecessors--and later in the deep, experimental pragmatism of the FDR administration. Granted, many favorable things can be said of the subsequent European experiments in social democracy, but it's doubtful they ever would have been tried without the prior, hugely successful social experimentation under FDR.

So my point is that, where human well-being is concerned, the greatest benefit has NEVER been conferred by doctrinaire idealists, but by an entirely different species of visionary: those who were willing to take the admittedly imperfect institutions of their time and remodel them into something recognizable and acceptable to the contemporary public, but something that nonetheless included a large element of fairly radical change. Nor do I demean the "doctrinaire idealists" (at least the ones who were philosophical theorists), for their ideas loomed STRONGLY in the background--if in no way else, as political pressure--for those who invented and institutionalized the needed pragmatic changes. As political change, insofar as it's democratic, must always require widespread political support, I think what we need to be talking about--as under both the American Revolution AND FDR--is a way of "radicalizing the mainstream." And radical, doctrinaire philosophies--like Marxism, socialism, or anarchism (or, not philosophically but politically, the Green Party)--simply won't cut it. I don't claim to have the required pragmatism answer, but I DO lay claim to the needed SENSE of pragmatism and would strongly like to discuss strategies with those who share that same pragmatic sense.

The relevant question is how we can get capitalism sufficiently under control that it offers substantial benefit to the vast majority of the American (and ultimately, the world's) people. Perhaps the ultimate solution involves going beyond capitalism, but I see no feasible way of entertaining that question--without letting human civilization first be environmentally destroyed--without getting popular control of EXISTING capitalist governments. I'm simply a pragmatist, and I strongly suspect, based on history and available practical options, that anyone who thinks otherwise is a PRIGmatist.

Please consider joining the one existing political revolt movement, True Blue Democrats, attempting to "radicalize the mainstream." We're political pragmatists, to the extent that we're even seeking a more effective name; we're NOT hidebound or dogmatic, and to us nothing--except effective democracy--is sacred. Check us out at .

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Patrick Walker is co-founder of Revolt Against Plutocracy (RAP) and the Bernie or Bust movement it spawned. Before that, he cut his activist teeth with the anti-fracking and Occupy Scranton PA movements. No longer with RAP, he wields his pen (more...)

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