Tommaso Pavone: Recipe for pragmatic liberalism

BY TOMMASO PAVONE

Published February 23, 2010

It’s back to basics.

Over the past year, perhaps because we live in uncertain times or because we are upset with the status quo, Americans have been engaging in an exercise of reconnecting with the basic principles that matter. Consider the two following examples and you’ll see what I mean.

First, the Republican National Committee tried to implement a “purity test” — a set of ten principles inspired by Ronald Reagan that would force Republican candidates to adhere to at least eight principles if they wished to receive RNC support. And perhaps more importantly, Ina Garten, the jolly “Barefoot Contessa” of the Food Network, recently published a cookbook titled “Back to Basics.” Never have I seen a more delicious feast for both the eyes and the brain.

So whether you’re in the mood for conservative philosophy or for braised beef short ribs with port wine reduction and sweet corn panna cotta, this is your time to explore the basic philosophies that give your life purpose (or at least make you a better cook).

I have decided to jump on the bandwagon. Perhaps it’s simply because I have too much time on my hands. Then again, maybe I was just inspired by Garten’s succulent devotion to the basic tenets of cooking. I leave such ponderings to you.

Regardless of the reason, the following is a set of basic principles for what I call “the pragmatic liberal,” an identity with which I strongly identify.

1. Empathy.

We are not endowed with omniscience and therefore we cannot expect to fully know why people choose to do what they do or why they live the way they live. We also cannot expect to relate to all the outside factors that impact people’s lives. For this reason, the pragmatic liberal approaches social issues with a strong sense of empathy. This, in turn, means that the pragmatic liberal refrains from judging others and focuses on understanding them instead.

2. Humility.

One of the basic tenets of pragmatism is to know yourself and your own boundaries. Such introspection leads to a sense of humility — even Bill Gates needs advice every once in a while. In short, the pragmatic liberal recognizes his or her own imperfection, seeks support from others and adopts perspectives grounded in humility.

3. Solidarity.

My mother loves to say that humans are a social species and it’s true. We need one another to survive, to evolve and to live a fulfilling life. Recognizing this, the pragmatic liberal seeks to balance his or her own self-interest with a legitimate concern for society. This doesn’t mean that the pragmatic liberal is selfless — rather, the pragmatic liberal remembers that his or her actions can both help and harm others, and that ultimately his or her own well-being is contingent on everyone else’s well-being.

4. The belief that the status quo always needs improving.

Perfection doesn’t exist and therefore there is no reason to be fully satisfied with the status quo. Someone always needs help, an unexpected problem will always arise, inefficiencies and inequalities will always demand our attention. This is the driving reason why the pragmatic liberal believes in progressivism — our goal should always be, in the words of our Constitution, “to form a more perfect Union.”

5. The understanding that self-criticism leads to strength.

Never has the United States been weaker than in the aftermath of September 11th when all forms of criticism were purged. The world is imperfect and we are an imperfect nation composed of imperfect individuals. The pragmatic liberal recognizes that in order to better oneself, one must be willing to criticize oneself. The inability to engage in self-criticism is not demonstrative of confidence, but rather of weakness.

These five core principles are at the center of pragmatic liberalism. But beyond being simply principles, they are a foundation for a pragmatic and progressive way of analyzing current events and forming opinions. After all, part of the college experience is building the necessary tools to make sense of the world. I don’t consider these principles as a means of political persuasion – I find them to be important guiding principles in my day-to-day life.

I certainly don’t hold a copyright on these principles, nor do I wish to impose them on anyone. But I do think I can contribute to our dialogue by sharing them and that hopefully some of you will find them helpful. After all, it’s back to basics, or, in my case, back to watching Garten on the Food Network.

Tommaso Pavone can be reached at tpavone@umich.edu.