Idealism versus pragmatism in politics and policymaking: Labour, Brexit, and evidence-based policymaking

In a series of heroic leaps of logic, I aim to highlight some important links between three current concerns: Labour’s leadership contest, the Brexit vote built on emotion over facts, and the insufficient use of evidence in policy. In each case, there is a notional competition between ‘idealism’ and ‘pragmatism’ (as defined in common use, not philosophy); the often-unrealistic pursuit of a long term ideal versus the focus on solving more immediate problems often by compromising ideals and getting your hands dirty. We know what this looks like in party politics, including the compromises that politicians make to win elections and the consequences for their image, but do we know how to make the same compromises when we appeal for a more deliberative referendum or more evidence-informed policymaking?

I searched Google for a few minutes until I found a decent hook for this post. It is a short Forbes article by Susan Gunelius advocating a good mix of pragmatic and idealistic team members:

Pragmatic leaders focus on the practical, “how do we get this done,” side of any task, initiative or goal.  They can erroneously be viewed as negative in their approach when in fact they simply view the entire picture (roadblocks included) to get to the end result.  It’s a linear, practical way of thinking and “doing.”

Idealist leaders focus on the visionary, big ideas.  It could be argued that they focus more on the end result than the path to get there, and they can erroneously be viewed as looking through rose-colored glasses when, in fact, they simply “see” the end goal and truly believe there is a way to get there”.

On the surface, it’s a neat description of the current battle to win the Labour party, with Jeremy Corbyn representing the idealist willing to lose elections to stay true to the pure ideal, and Owen Smith representing the pragmatist willing to compromise on the ideal to win an election.

In this context, pragmatic politicians face a dilemma that we often take for granted in party politics: they want to look flexible enough to command the ‘centre’ ground, but also appear principled and unwilling to give up completely on their values to secure office. Perhaps pragmatists also accept to a large extent that the means can justify the ends: they can compromise their integrity and break a few rules to win office if it means that they serve the long term greater good as a result (in this case, better a compromised socialist than a Tory government). So, politicians accept that a slightly tarnished image is the price you pay to get what you want.

For current purposes, let us assume that you are the kind of person drawn more to the pragmatist rather than the idealist politician; you despair at the naiveté of the idealist politician, and expect to see them fail rather than gain office.

If so, how might we draw comparisons with other areas in politics and policymaking?

Referendums should be driven by facts and an intelligent public, not lies and emotions

Many people either joke or complain seriously about most of the public being too stupid to engage effectively in elections and referendums. I will use this joke about Trump because I saw it as a meme, and on Facebook it has 49000 smiley faces already:


An more serious idealistic argument about the Brexit vote goes something like this:

  • the case for Remain was relatively strong and backed by most of the best experts
  • most Leave voters ignored or mistrusted the experts
  • the Leave campaign was riddled with lies and exaggerations; and,
  • a large chunk of the public was not intelligent enough to separate the lies from the facts.

You often have to read between the lines and piece together this argument, but Dame Liz Forgan recently did me a favour by spelling out a key part in a speech to the British Academy:

Democracies require not just literate and numerate electorates. They need people who cannot be sold snake oil by every passing shyster because their critical faculties have been properly honed. Whose popular culture has not degenerated so completely that every shopping channel hostess is classed as a celebrity. Where post-modern irony doesn’t undermine both honest relaxation and serious endeavour. Where the idea of a post-factual age is seen as an acute peril not an amusing cultural meme. If the events of June have taught us anything it is that we need to put the rigour back in our education, the search for truth back in our media.

Of course, I have cherry picked the juiciest part to highlight a sense of idealism that I have seen in many places. Let’s link it back to our despair at the naïvely idealist politician: doesn’t this look quite similar? If we took this line, and pursued public education as our main solution to Brexit, wouldn’t people think that we are doomed to fail in the long term and lose a lot of other votes on the way?

Another (albeit quicker and less idealistic) solution, proposed largely by academics (many of whom are highly critical of the campaigns) is largely institutional: let’s investigate the abuse of facts during the referendum to help us produce new rules of engagement. Yet, if the problem is that people are too stupid or emotional to process facts, it doesn’t seem that much more effective.

At this stage, I’d like to say: instead of clinging to idealism, let’s be pragmatic about this. If you despair of the world, get your hands dirty to win key votes rather than hope that people will do the right thing or wait for a sufficiently ‘rational’ public.

Yet, I don’t think we yet know enough about how to do it and how far ‘experts’ should go, particularly since many experts are funded – directly or indirectly – by the state and are subject to different (albeit often unwritten) rules than politicians. So, in a separate post, I provide some bland advice that might apply to all:

  • Don’t simply supply people with more information when you think they are not paying enough attention to it. Instead, try to work out how they think, to examine how they are likely to demand and interpret information.
  • Don’t just bemoan the tendency of people to accept simple stories that reinforce their biases. Instead, try to work out how to produce evidence-based stories that can compete for attention with those of campaigners.
  • Don’t stop at providing simpler and more accessible information. People might be more likely to read a blog post than a book or lengthy report, but most people are likely to remain blissfully unaware of most academic blogs.

Yet, if we think that other referendum participants are winning because they are lying and cheating, we might also think that honourable strategies won’t tip the balance. We know that, like pragmatic politicians, we might need to go a bit further to win key debates. Anything else is idealism, right?

Policy should be based on evidence, not electoral politics, ideology and emotion

The same can be said for many scientists bemoaning the lack of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM). Some express the naïve hope that politicians become trained to think like scientists and/ or the view that evidence-based policymaking should be more like the idea of evidence-based medicine in which there is a hierarchy of evidence. Others try to work out how they can improve the supply of evidence or set up new institutions to get policymakers to pay more attention to facts. This seems to be EBPM’s equivalent of idealism, in which you largely wish for something that won’t exist rather than trying to produce pragmatic strategies for the real world.

A more pragmatic two-step solution is to:

(1) work out how and why policymakers demand information, and the policymaking context in which they operate (which I describe in The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking, and with Kathryn Oliver and Adam Wellstead in PAR).

(2) draw on as many interdisciplinary insights to explore how to do something about it, such as to establish the psychology of policymakers and identify good ways to tell simple stories to generate an emotional connection to your evidence (which I describe in a forthcoming special issue in Palgrave Communications).

Should academics remain idealists rather than pragmatists?

Of course, it is legitimate to take what I am calling an idealistic approach. In politics, Corbyn’s idealism is certainly capturing a part of the public imagination (while another part of the public watches on, sniggering or aghast). In the Academy, it may be a part of a legitimate attempt to maintain your integrity by not engaging directly in politics or policymaking, and/or accepting that academics largely contribute to a very long term enlightenment function rather than enjoy immediate impact. All I am saying is that you need to choose and, if you seek more direct impact, you need to forego idealism and start thinking about what it means to be pragmatic while pursuing ‘evidence informed’ politics.

1 Comment

Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, UK politics and policy

One response to “Idealism versus pragmatism in politics and policymaking: Labour, Brexit, and evidence-based policymaking

  1. Jane Byrne

    There is excellent, and ethical, work being done in social marketing by academics like Alan Andreasen that seeks to change behaviour but starts from a point of understanding why certain ‘bad’ choices, e.g. in diet, might make sense to the individual, rather than telling people they are stupid as Forgan does. In the context of the EU Referendum, this would have meant finding out a lot more about why, for example, people were voting UKIP and how they experienced the EU, long before the campaign started and then using that insight in the campaign and, better still, in the negotiations with the EU. (It would of course require a Government that cared about the former industrial regions of the UK…)
    It’s also salutary for those decrying the ignorant that The Chilcot Report demonstrated that the best educated people sometimes fail to distinguish between facts and assertions.

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