2011: Year of the Pragmatists?

Merriam-Webster named "pragmatic" its Top Word for 2011. Why the dictionary got it wrong.

Merriam-Webster defines “pragmatic” to mean “practical as opposed to idealistic” and, according to a company press release, has put the term at the head of its list of Top Ten Words of the Year. Possibly seeking to channel the sentiments of Americans recently granting their legislature an 11 percent approval rating in two polls, a Merriam-Webster editor added that pragmatism is “an admirable quality that people value in themselves and wish for in others, especially in their leaders and their policies.” While this sentiment is a welcome one, the dictionary’s definition leaves something to be desired.

One problem is that while pragmatism and idealism are indeed “opposed” in some respects, they are also inseparable, at least in the United States. Americans are both pragmatic and idealistic and generally want policies that reflect both tendencies. Purely pragmatic policies are unlikely to win sufficient political support to be sustainable and are—ironically—impractical as a result. Conversely, Americans are generally not interested in idealistic policies that cannot succeed and may produce terrible consequences when they fail. There are reasons we say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Another problem is that Americans have multiple objectives as well as multiple ideals, and our objectives and ideals come into conflict with one another at least as frequently within the two categories as between them. From a pragmatic perspective, the United States has an interest in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon as well as an interest in avoiding new wars in the Middle East. From an idealistic perspective, Americans seek to promote freedom but to avoid anarchy both abroad and at home.

At home, U.S. domestic politics is in part a system to manage competing ideals. Americans have in fact spent much of U.S. history trying to find the right balance between personal liberty and security, for example, and between economic freedom and governmental compassion. Today, most Americans do appear to crave greater pragmatism from elected officials in addressing the country’s economic challenges. Yet they also appear to seek pragmatism in service of our ideals— rather than in opposition to them—to reconcile this tension.

The underlying difficulty may lie in the changing nature of America’s public-policy debates. The dramatic multiplication of media in the United States—starting with cable television and continuing on the Internet—appears to have undermined our ability as a society to agree on the facts. Politicians, cable-TV talking heads and bloggers regularly state “facts” and “statistics” that are at best creatively engineered and at worst cynically manipulated. This is not new behavior; disingenuous political arguments are as old as politics. The transformative element is a volume of information that appears to have exceeded the capacity of our marketplace of ideas for self-correction, something that allows bad information to develop a self-sustaining life of its own. As a result, our debates sometimes seem to be between contending realities rather than contending policies.

In this environment, the content of our public-policy debates and politics appear naturally to be gravitating away from concrete policy choices—which are increasingly difficult to discuss meaningfully in the absence of a shared set of facts—and toward competing ideals. This in turn forces our debates out of the realm of pragmatism, where discussion could focus on the best means to achieve our ends, and into the world of idealism, where even modest changes in policy can be assailed as threats to America’s core principles.

Unfortunately, while America’s political leaders spend more and more time on debates that are less and less productive, they leave serious problems unattended and important opportunities unexplored. Our domestic challenges are well known, starting with unsustainable deficits and debts. Internationally, the United States faces specific tests in the instability in the Middle East (including in post-occupation Iraq), Iran’s nuclear program, complex and tense relations with Pakistan, new uncertainty in Russia, economic crisis in Europe and an ambitious China.

With the world’s largest economy as well as its reserve currency, the most capable military, considerable cultural, scientific, and moral soft power, and many other strengths, America also has substantial opportunities. The United States has produced much of the technological innovation that is currently transforming the world and could generate radical new ideas in medicine, energy and other fields to match those in information and communications. Moreover, small but widening cracks in the international order resulting from the rise of China and other emerging powers contain not only great danger but also great possibility; who but America has the capacity and the influence to shape a new international system?