Employing Pragmatic Optimism

Jack Fleming, Opinion Editor

The term “pragmatic optimism” may initially seem like a complete oxymoron. Indeed, the very idea that one could embrace pragmatism  seeing our flawed and complicated world just as it is  and still remain firmly optimistic is perhaps bizarre. Nonetheless, I would argue that embracing pragmatic optimism is utterly essential. In combining these two seemingly disparate ideas, we give ourselves the potential to confront bleak and seemingly unsolvable issues head-on  pragmatism serves to remind us that change comes slowly and is enormously difficult to make happen while optimism allows us to understand and have faith in our ability to make the world a better place.

Practicing either pragmatism or optimism exclusively is fairly problematic and often leads to passivity. If, for example, we view various religious conflicts from a purely pragmatic point of view, it is easy to quickly get overwhelmed by the complexity of the issues at stake and conclude that nothing can be done. This pragmatic approach leads us to feel a profound sense of futility and deprives us of confidence in our ability to make positive change. Similarly, purely optimistic approaches can easily lead to utter naïveté and complacency. If we assume that realizing racial and gender equality is inevitable, we may discount the reality that progress is far from linear and requires steadfast and committed action. Clearly, neither pragmatism nor optimism is an ideal approach when practiced exclusively.

But if we maintain a philosophy of pragmatic optimism, it becomes possible to fully understand the magnitude of the problems we face while retaining an unshakable belief in our ability to successfully confront them. This is particularly useful when confronting the vast and dispiriting problem of climate change. The landmark Paris Climate Accord is sometimes characterized as a glorious achievement and a solution to global warming  however, others demonize the agreement’s overly flexible nature and believe it is doomed to fail. If instead we view the agreement through the lens of pragmatic optimism, it becomes possible to see the accord for what it truly is: a pivotal and necessary development in combating climate change, but something that must be judiciously built upon by a slew of future legislation and consistent political pressure from environmental activists.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s actions regarding civil rights provide an excellent illustration of pragmatic optimism in action. Johnson understood that sweeping civil rights legislation was absolutely necessary in order to combat pervasive racial inequality. However, Johnson knew that staunch opposition from Southern Democrat lawmakers in particular necessitated working across the political aisle and compromising with other congressmen when necessary. In order to ensure that the 1964 Civil Rights Bill would not be rejected by Congress, Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey compromised with Republican Senator Everett Dirksen and other lawmakers on key language within the bill. Essentially, it was both Johnson’s optimistic belief in the possibility of working towards racial equality and his pragmatic understanding of the political climate in Congress that allowed this crucial piece of civil rights legislation to become law.

There is much to celebrate in the world we inhabit today, but our society is also rife with problems that necessitate forceful action. Through pragmatic optimism, I firmly believe that we can understand and tackle seemingly intractable issues  we must collectively work towards the seemingly far-fetched goal of making our world a better place.