Jackson Doughart
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Should Canada be governed by pragmatism?

Prince Arthur Herald, 29 October 2013

[Pragmatism] is all very well in theory but it doesn’t work in practice.” — Henry Morgenbesser

Canadian politics are riddled with absurdity. In fact, calling the affairs of the Canadian government “political” may well be a misnomer, especially when one reflects on the true object of political partisanship: to facilitate the persistent and continuous clash of fundamental beliefs about an ideal and just society, rooted in the assertion of rival and often-incommensurable values. On this score, the Canadian state is not so much governed as it is managed by a narrow faction of people, most of whom agree on the big questions of political life. This reality speaks not only to the attitude of elites but also that of the mass citizenry.

Consider what Canadians praise in good governments and scorn in bad ones. The commonest complaints aim at parliaments that fail to “get things done”, or ones that are plagued by “partisan infighting”, or ones that are unwilling to “settle their differences” and “get to business”. These sentiments indicate that Canadians primarily value efficiency in politics, exemplified by the very strange and pervasive desire for majority governments (one of the main arguments used against reforms to the electoral formula) — an occurrence that should arrest anyone concerned with potential of unchecked abuses of power. By contrast, the strongest admonition of a ruling party is the accusation of being “ideological”, or even worse, of advancing an “agenda” of any sort, let alone a hidden one.

In order to deconstruct this reaction, we must account for the possibility of non-ideological politics and for the source of ideas that would animate such a system. A good place to start is the rebuilding of the Liberal Party, which is eager to earn its way back to the status of Canada’s natural governing party after two serious electoral defeats. In a Toronto Star column from last January that reflected on their contemporary relevance, Thomas Walkom explained that instead of advancing political positions, “Liberals prefer to talk about what they call values.” However, these are not really values in the philosophical sense, but are instead forms of branding, reputation, and name recognition, with a tinge of regionalism. And if Canadian society was actually political in the sense that I have described, an appeal to genuine values would be the ticket to recovery.

Unfortunately, the problem is not simply that the Liberal Party doesn’t stand for anything beyond what its leaders deem “electable”, but that Canadians don’t see a place for a battle of ideas in the affairs of government. They have succumbed to what Thomas Pangle identifies as the “bureaucratization of civil existence under the soft, numbing tyranny of . . . ‘procedural rationality.’” In The Ennobling of Democracy (1992), Pangle goes on to say that, “Once given legitimacy in a rationalist and egalitarian mass democracy, this dependence grows like a cancer, issuing in the ever-more-absolute sway of conformist ‘public opinion’ and ‘public relations’ over the spiritually dwarfed and morally cowed and atomized individual.” This etiolation of civic virtue — the cultivated qualities of individual character that relate to citizenship — is often disregarded by the politics of pragmatism, an outlook rooted in the judgment that governance has moved beyond ideology. This view presumes that basic questions about social and political institutions have already been answered, leaving the administration by men of things as the sole remaining responsibility of government, and thereby ruling out political contributions that do not share this tenuous assumption.

In general terms, pragmatism refers to the belief that political values can be established by unbiased observation of facts alone, and that debates about competing value-systems are irrelevant to political action. In many ways, it is the extreme but logical endpoint of the shift from Ancient political philosophy to Modern political science, and shares some characteristics with “non-ideal” theory, which chides “armchair idealizing” and supports the elucidation of theory from practice, instead of practice from theory. More concretely, the pragmatist view is associated with the progressive intellectual tradition of American philosophy, as espoused by several thinkers of the early 20th century, such as Horace Kallen, William James, and John Dewey. The journalist Jonah Goldberg argues in The Tyranny of Clichés (2011) that the bases of pragmatism form the core of today’s American liberalism, and that these bases have deluded liberals into believing that their political positions are entirely fact-based, when they are in fact riddled with freestanding normative assertions.

I agree with Goldberg, yet the striking thing to observe about Canadian politics is the degree to which all mainstream parties, even the supposedly ideological ones, have fallen victim to the pragmatist trap. Canadian federal elections do not demonstrate the public’s orientation toward a particular concept of the good, as debated by citizens and represented by politicians. They instead become personality contests that empower the most trusted manager and his or her team of toadying yes-men. The expertise of policy makers takes precedent over the conviction of citizens, and the quotidian grind of political life becomes almost wholly disconnected from the give-and-take of longstanding arguments. This is a state of affairs to which all parties acquiesce.

However attractive it might seem, pragmatism fails through a rudimentary fallacy. Facts cannot establish the cogency of a political position or initiative without the interpretive intermediary of values. That animals are abused, for example, does not mandate action to prevent harm without an explanation of why the humane treatment of animals is important, which the factual observation alone cannot provide. That some people have more money or own more land than others is meaningless unless it is juxtaposed against a convincing theory of right that would justify action to redistribute wealth. Put simply, it is impossible to identify injustices without determining an ideal view of justice, which is precisely what pragmatism assumes to be irrelevant. Likewise, no political value (be it equality, virtue, sufficiency, unity, identity, liberty, piety, loyalty, temperance, camaraderie, patriotism, or courage) can be supported by empirical observation alone, creating a space for real debate about values in a democratic political culture.

One is left to conclude not only that governance by pragmatism is impossible, but that the invocation of this outlook is misleading. The territory upon which pragmatism toils is actually a ground of mass ideological consensus, shared not only by Liberals but also by New Democrats and Conservatives. This helps to explain why all of the parties agree on so many major issues, such as official bilingualism, socialized medicine, foreign policy, mass immigration, multiculturalism, free trade, and social policies. And if they do happen to disagree, parties are certain to downplay their difference, so as to leave the general consensus unblemished. This is hardly a healthy way of proceeding, as the consensual ideology may be wrong, or at least improvable by the challenge of competing values.

So in lieu of providing an environment of hostility, Canadians should defend ideology and contribute to its improvement, especially when ideology is tempered by a respect for evidence and logical consistency. And instead of stunting the development of ideals through the strictures of a pragmatic litmus test, ideological biases should be declared openly and evaluated on their merits. The parliamentary consequence of this attitudinal shift would be a regime of political parties that represent markedly different conceptions of a just society, serving as an avenue for a better civil society and for the formulation of policies that are far more just than any rooted in pragmatism.

In the final analysis, we can convict Canadian culture of a political germaphobia, where citizens pine for a clean state of public affairs that is disentangled from the grimy and divisive business of values. Yet politics are supposed to be messy and divisive, with winners and losers, hurt feelings, and the sense that one’s most cherished ideals must constantly be defended. And while it is inevitable and desirable that technocratic discourse will remain with us in some respect, Canadians should make room for the timeless and substantive political questions that are responsible for the fate of the common good.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com