Mark Shields

The differences between an ideologue — someone who subscribes completely to a political ideology (whether conservative or liberal) and a pragmatist — someone who is concerned almost exclusively with the practical results of a specific public policy — is the biggest divide in American politics.

Simply stated, the ideologue believes that what is right works, while the pragmatist believes what works is right. Nearly everyone has a personal gripe about the failings of government — its incompetence, its indifference or its arrogance — while few of us trumpet the public policies that make our country healthier, more just and more prosperous.

Think about it: We are regularly told by politicians, experts and the press of the menacing and imminent environmental disasters threatening us, while no comparable authorities publicly proclaim the historic successes the US government has already achieved in improving the nation’s air and water.

Thanks to Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act laws and their enforcement, harmful carbon monoxide in the nation’s air has been reduced by 85% over the past four decades. Ninety-eight percent of the lead in the air has been eliminated, while sulfur dioxide has been cut by 71%. Those numbers translate into the saving of an estimated 200,000-plus lives and millions of American children being spared the curse of disabling lung and respiratory diseases.

All this was achieved during the same years that US gross domestic product grew by 182%; motor vehicle miles traveled increased by 114%; energy consumption was up; and the nation’s population grew by 44%.

To be fair, and to the credit of a GOP administration, the Environmental Protection Agency became law when Richard Nixon was president. But generally speaking, Republicans have been the party strenuously opposing government rules and regulations, while Democrats have advocated for more government intervention.

Because of government, both polio and tuberculosis have essentially been eliminated; African American civil and voting rights have been extended; and the nation’s poverty rate has been dramatically cut (thanks to Social Security, 22 million Americans every month are lifted out of poverty).

It’s the obligation of and the opportunity for “pro-government” Democrats, in the early months of the new administration, to make the case for repurchasing public confidence in our government by — pragmatically — reminding us of the improvements in American life our government has already achieved.

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