Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Progressives, Moderates, and the Politics of Principle and Pragmatism

Eric W. Cheng

There is much agreement among ‘progressives’ and ‘moderates’ that the modern Republican Party is an existential threat to American democracy. This agreement, I believe, is well-founded. With notable exceptions , Republican officials have either supported or turned a blind eye towards violent efforts – egged on by a Republican president – to overturn an election. Moreover, many Republicans now reflexively denounce any elections they lose as fraudulent, and are systematically preparing to steal future elections. American democracy is on its knees.

Yet progressives and moderates continue to squabble. At the root of their disagreements lies a debate about whether politics is about principle or pragmatism. According to many progressives, politics is about fighting for what is right, and about standing up for the disadvantaged and the oppressed – say, the poor, women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. So, progressives denounce the pragmatic politics preached by moderates as corrupt: how much are electoral victories worth if those victories require us to adopt ‘lite’ versions of Republican policies, and if those victories end up entrenching the social hierarchies which exist between advantaged and disadvantaged social groups? The lesser of two evils is still evil.

In contrast, according to many moderates, the real world is messy, and even incremental change is hard-won. So, moderates decry the ‘purity’ politics preached by progressives as naive: what use are your principles if your obsession with purity ends up alienating centrist voters – and causing us to lose elections? And if the choice is between the lesser evil and the greater evil, it is irresponsible to not choose the lesser evil.

Now, there is an obvious solution to this predicament: both groups should be encouraged to assume that the other is at least motivated by good will. Progressives should recognize that moderates are not merely sell-outs, while moderates should celebrate how progressives are restless to make things better for the disadvantaged.

I do believe that such mutual recognition is vital. Yet much of the difficulty with this approach lies in the fact that progressives do not merely advocate for principle, and moderates, for pragmatism; progressives also criticize moderates for not being pragmatic, while moderates criticize progressives for not being principled.

Progressives point to how moderates frequently lose elections, including to the most unpopular presidential candidate in polling history. Progressives maintain the problem lies in the fact that moderates compromise to the point of seeming like they stand for nothing – except for winning. So even if moderates can win elections in the short-run by watering down their proposals (or by co-opting their opponents’), many voters end up distrusting them in the long-run. At best, then, moderates are good at tactics, but bad at strategy.

In return, moderates accuse progressives of caring more about feeling self-righteous than about being principled. By equating principle with purity – and by insisting that compromise is a sign of corruption – progressives end up failing to codify most, if any, of their principles into law. And given that progressives tend to have more radical positions, they end up alienating centrists and losing elections too. So it turns out that progressives would prefer to profess their principles full-heartedly in opposition than be in government and accomplish something for the disadvantaged groups they claim to care about. Actually being principled requires that one gets one’s hands dirty.

What can be done to break this impasse? How can progressives and moderates come to recognize each other’s good will? I submit that what is needed is a reconceptualization of what it means to be principled. Specifically, neither being ‘pragmatic’ nor being ‘pure’ is inherently a sign that one is principled or unprincipled. Rather, there are both principled and unprincipled ways of being pragmatic, just as there are principled and unprincipled ways of being pure.

Pragmatists are principled when they compromise and pursue half-measures for the sake of furthering the common good. In contrast, they are unprincipled when they do so solely to further their electoral prospects. Similarly, purists are principled when they hesitate to agree to compromises and half-measures because they worry that those proposals might undermine the common good. In contrast, they are unprincipled when they refuse to agree to those proposals in order to feel like they are ‘above’ the sea of corruption in which they find themselves.

This reconceptualization would help progressives and moderates cut each other some slack. Progressives, who are more likely to be purists, would find it easier to tolerate the compromises pursued by moderates. Meanwhile, moderates, who are more likely to be pragmatists, would likely be less exacerbated by progressives’ apparent intransigence. This reconceptualization would also help progressives and moderates ensure that they remain principled purists and pragmatists respectively, and do not slip into becoming unprincipled purists and pragmatists. In particular, the stubbornness of principled purists can help keep principled pragmatists ‘on their toes’, and avoid the temptation of striking compromises for the sake of striking compromises.

Promoting this reconceptualization will undoubtedly be challenging. Indeed, the dichotomy between principle and pragmatism, while false, reflects a widespread common-sense moral intuition, that compromise is akin to selling out. Nonetheless, progressives and moderates must somehow get beyond this false dichotomy. The stakes of failing to do so – and of failing to get along – have seldom been higher.

Hanging Together by Eric W. Cheng

About The Author

Eric W. Cheng

Eric Cheng is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University....

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!