One of the age-old questions in advocacy is whether it’s more important to be pragmatic/realistic or idealistic. These two poles are often positioned in a zero-sum mentality – that you can do one at the cost of the other. I remember early in my career when I was working in DC at an advocacy organization and witnessing two experienced legislative directors arguing intensely about whether to support a bill that had no chance of passing but 100% adhered to the values of the organization or to support a bill that might pass but did not challenge the fundamentally wrong state of affairs.
Both legislative directors remained stalemated in the debate, and ultimately the organization tried to support both laws, creating a muddled message and dividing organizational attention and resources. As a result, neither bill advanced. Today you can witness this debate around almost any issue, including on criminal justice. Some advocates think that it is best to argue for an idealized state, others are willing to accept a partial victory.
I believe that this is very much a false binary. That between being idealistic and being pragmatic, there is a third way – and that is to be effective. The founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Marsha Linehan said that “Life is not about being right, it is about being effective.” The key is to be upfront about your ideals while ensuring that a partial victory is in the right direction and does not forgo the chance of future progress. Being upfront does not mean castigating one’s ideological opponents – you still find common ground – but you remain honest about your vision.
At a time of heightened polarization, we need to both progress while also being honest about fundamental inequities and challenges in society. This is doable, requiring careful consideration, grace, and idealism.