Today's world calls for pragmatism, not tribal politics

Wed, Jul 22, 2020

THE spectacle of the Face Mask Wars in the United States - the incomprehensible partisan clash over the use of a piece of cloth that all healthcare professionals agree protects one against the coronavirus - demonstrates the extent to which tribal politics now affects policymaking.

That face masks, perhaps the most visible manifestation of the Covid-19 pandemic, have become a political football, igniting debate and resistance, suggests that a commitment to a political agenda can override considerations that are based on science and common sense.

As the coronavirus outbreak worsens, communities across the US are now torn over one of the most basic measures to limit its spread: requiring the use of masks in businesses and public spaces. The result is a widening national divide that could have deadly consequences for millions of people who are denied a layer of protection. It is ironic that this form of cultural war is impeding sensible policymaking in a country that not so long ago celebrated pragmatism - the way of thinking of or dealing with problems in a practical way, rather than by employing grand theories or abstract principles.

In a way, pragmatism was regarded as the country's philosophical brand, what separated Americans from their European cousins whose political-ideological warfare impeded the search for national consensus and led to civil and continental wars. By contrast, Americans were known to be pragmatic people who seek to resolve political problems in a practical, commonsensical way. If the idea works, then let us embrace it and get the job done even if that meant challenging traditional thinking or ideological purity.

Hence against the backdrop of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) proposed that Americans needed to reassess the laissez-faire principles that guided their economic policies until then, and allow the federal government to play a larger role in the economy including through regulation and wealth distribution. Then during the economic stagnation of the 1970s, Ronald Reagan, challenged what by then became the economic orthodoxy and called for reducing the federal government's role in the economy, unleashing free market forces through de-regulation and low taxation.

From that perspective, despite their policy differences, both leaders applied an empiricist approach, recognising when the US needed to change direction in order to save and strengthen its economy.

For present-day pragmatic leaders, start with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Mr Johnson was known during much of his political career to be a devotee of the late PM Margret Thatcher and a fan of free markets. But now the British PM has a new political idol in FDR, and insists that Britain must adopt FDR-policies by employing the government to deal with problems that untamed capitalism cannot solve.

As for Mr Biden, after years in Washington advancing the interests of US businesses and promoting free trade, the former vice-president is now adopting his own version of an America First agenda, recognising the need to reassess the benefits versus the costs of globalisation.

Some would fault Mr Johnson and Mr Biden for inconsistency. But then one can be consistent and wrong. Hence economist John Maynard Keynes responded to detractors who complained that his opinions tended to change over the years: "When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?" In today's era of many swift changes, this kind of pragmatism should be welcomed.