The Problem with Pragmatism

By Bill Mefford

About six years ago when I was actively working on immigration reform at the federal level I decided to conduct a very unscientific poll. I worked alongside some of the smartest people I have met who worked with me on immigration reform and so I went to each of them and asked them this: if they could wave a magic wand and get rid of all of the politics surrounding the immigration debate, what would they create as the most workable and humane immigration system. There were some small differences, but almost all of them pictured open borders essentially.

Yep, the two dirty words in Washington DC when it comes to immigration debates. Republicans use “open borders” wrongly to characterize anything except complete militarization of the border and inflicting the harshest penalties they can imagine on undocumented people in the country. But they are dirty words for Democrats too as President Obama showed - dramatically increasing military spending on the border to big defense contractors and deporting well over 2 million people while in office.

But, for a lot of reasons, what these incredibly smart and seasoned advocates with decades of policy work under their collective belts viewed as the most pragmatic path forward for the country as well as for undocumented immigrants themselves was to allow for virtual open borders (virtual being the operative word).

I bring up this example because much is now being made among Democrats and among liberals in general about the need to be more “pragmatic” in order to win back the White House in 2020. We have - wrongly - I believe - equated being pragmatic with being timid and incremental in a futile effort to p[lease both sides, even when one of those sides is overtly racist. However, in reality, we are defining pragmatism with a completely political lens; a political lens that is trapped within a country that is historically and inherently racist, classist, sexist, and violent.

What if we were to instead define pragmatism as what is workable and humane? What if being pragmatic meant we tried to achieve real solutions that were effective and did not create harm to people, especially the most vulnerable? Instead, we assume being pragmatic is choosing the middle between two extremes. But no one wakes up in the morning and says I choose the middle ground between racism, violence, and misogyny on one side and love, equality, and justice on the other. Well, no wakes up with that thought except for the person currently occupying the White House and his mindless followers (looking at you GOP). The rest of us want to spend our lives completely on the side of love, equality, and justice!

But yet, when we look at issues like immigration we assume that being pragmatic means that we give billions and billions of dollars in corporate welfare to defense contractors who will use these sums to further destroy the ecology of the southern border and increase even more militarization while “granting” a 12+ year long “pathway to citizenship” that is entirely rigged to limit millions of undocumented immigrants from accessing citizenship due to the steep limits it will place on those trying to remain in this country with their families and communities. Being pragmatic from a political lens means that we enrich more private prisons as we channel more money into interior enforcement and increase the numbers of Black and Brown people in our prisons. This is how pragmatism works right now.

But what if, given this specific context of immigration, we got rid of defining pragmatism from a political lens and instead, defined pragmatism as workable and humane? If we strive to be pragmatic in the sense of being effective and humane, then we might see that immigrants to the United States are our sisters and brothers and are fleeing other countries that have been mired in violence and corruption largely (though definitely not entirely) due to past and even present US foreign and economic policies. Being pragmatic in this way might cause us to see that having a strong Guatemala or El Salvador or Chile or Ghana or Somalia or Sudan is just as important to our collective security as having a strong Louisiana or Montana or Illinois or Alabama.

Redefining pragmatism means first and foremost that we leave behind the tribalism that is literally killing people and tearing communities and even entire countries a part (and which is the only thing that the current occupant of the Oval Office is dedicated to). Being pragmatic does not have to mean negotiating with racism and other forms of oppression. Being pragmatic should mean that we are focused on finding real solutions that are workable and humane - that put the welfare of the vulnerable first.

So, I am cool with folks being pragmatic. In fact, I am wholly dedicated to it. But not if being pragmatic means bowing down to the forces of racism, classism, sexism, corporate welfare, and wholesale violence. I am only committed to a pragmatism that is workable and humane. Count me in for that.

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