The Problem With Dogma

A recent column by Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times focused on an impediment to positive social change that routinely drives me nuts: activists for causes I agree with who insist on making the perfect the enemy of the good.

It isn’t just the MAGA ideologues who are prisoners of their own ideology. Goldberg’s column focuses on organizations on the left that have been roiled by internal conflicts pitting purists against pragmatists.

In June the Intercept’s Ryan Grim wrote about the toll that staff revolts and ideologically inflected psychodramas were taking on the work: “It’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult.” Privately, I’ve heard countless people on the professional left — especially those over, say, 35 — bemoan the irrational demands and manipulative dogmatism of some younger colleagues.

Recently, Maurice Mitchell, who heads up the progressive Working Families Party, has written about  what Goldberg calls “the left’s self-sabotaging impulse.”

Mitchell’s piece systematically lays out some of the assertions and assumptions that have paralyzed progressive outfits. Among them are maximalism, or “considering anything less than the most idealistic position” a betrayal; a refusal to distinguish between discomfort and oppression; and reflexive hostility to hierarchy. He criticizes the insistence “that change on an interpersonal or organizational level must occur before it is sought or practiced on a larger scale,” an approach that keeps activists turned inward, along with the idea that progressive organizations should be places of therapeutic healing.

As Goldberg notes, these impulses are not new. She points out that “destructive left-wing purity spirals are at least as old as the French Revolution.”

I can think of two relatively recent illustrations of that tendency, one local and one national.

On the local level, I am personally aware of two incidents where internal insistence on maximal (and performative) devotion to non-discrimination resulted in the very public ejection of leaders who were accused of encouraging  a less-than-ideal racial environment; in both of those situations, the executive found to be imperfect was anything but a bigot. (In one, there was actually an investigation by an outside company that found absolutely no evidence to support the allegations.) To the contrary, both had been involved in anti-discrimination activities for several years.

On the national level, I am convinced that dogmatic excesses actually diminished the beneficial impact of the #MeToo movement. (Admission: I still resent the unnecessary loss of Al Franken from the U.S. Senate thanks to indignation over a dumb joke told before he ran for office.)

When #MeToo first emerged, I applauded. Like all women, I had encountered unwanted “approaches” from men ranging from boorish behaviors to significantly worse and I certainly recognized the unfairness of blaming the victim (complaints about sexual assaults being dismissed with “well, what was she wearing?” or other responses suggesting that the woman was somehow “asking for it.”) Holding predators rather than their victims responsible was long overdue. Sending a message that unwanted touching and worse are not amusing, not a male prerogative, and not to be tolerated was also long overdue.

That said, there is a difference between unwanted attention and assault.

Inappropriate behaviors occur on a continuum–and responses to those behaviors should be calibrated to the severity of the behavior. Furthermore, fundamental fairness requires rejecting essentialism– all men are not dogs, and all women are not saints. Taking women seriously is not the same thing as uncritically believing anything and everything any woman says. An accusation of impropriety should be considered a rebuttable presumption–true, until and unless there is probative evidence to the contrary.

More generally, those of us old folks who have been “in the trenches” for a long time generally recognize that “strategy” is not a curse word, and a focus on strategic considerations is not evidence of insufficient devotion to the cause at hand.

Over the years, most of us learn to favor evolution over revolution, recognizing that sustainable progress is almost always incremental and that half a loaf really is better than no bread at all.

Recognizing that we aren’t going to change the world tomorrow to meet activists’ most exacting specifications doesn’t make people traitors to the cause.


  1. What better way to sabotage a movement than insist on an impossible goal for success. Works every time.

  2. “the perfect the enemy of the good”
    “pitting purists against pragmatists”
    “irrational demands and manipulative dogmatism”
    “maximalism, or “considering anything less than the most idealistic position” a betrayal”

    I fully believe this is the behavior that caused us to suffer 4 year + of Donald J. Trump. Thanks for nothing.

  3. Terry you are absolutely spot on. Now, what can we do to counter this behavior. I certainly do not have an answer.

  4. I think some of this was way over the top and I think it hurt those who were destroying others in their zeal for purity. I think Kirsten Gillibrand (NY United States Senator) torched her own political future by torching Al Franken

  5. I miss Al Franken. Watching Kirsten Gillibrand insist on his resignation was a frustrating and enraging experience.

  6. “Inappropriate behaviors occur on a continuum–and responses to those behaviors should be calibrated to the severity of the behavior. ”

    Kirsten Gillibrand and others like her who insisted that “Me Too” means all allegations are considered as true and must be treated the same when it comes to punishment has really undercut the movement. What they did to Al Franken is outrageous. Franken was too liberal for my taste, but I had enormous respect for him. He was a thoughtful, talented U.S. Senator whose career was unfairly ruined for minor offenses which happened primarily when he was a comedian.

  7. Hmmm,

    So, the youngest among us are not quite the pragmatists that have been alluded to by some of the commenters on this thread. The Me Too movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, any of the Occupy crowd, pick your movement, ideologues run the show. They cut their nose off to spite their face, and yet, the belief in their intellectual prowess by older folks seems to override reality! The Young dogmatic Me’ists self-worship or self aggrandize the legend that is themselves!

    Is it all of the younger ones? No, but those that make the most noise! And those that make the most noise get the most attention, and after the attention come the followers!

    As was mentioned yesterday, with the advent of social media and of course the worldwide web, a great magnification of voice was given to those whose pragmatism was greatly limited. But their ideology was/is dogmatically rigid.

    There will be those commenters on this particular thread who will agree with Sheila’s offering today, which would directly conflict with The kumbaya, The future’s so bright I’ve got to wear shades, lol!

    Being pragmatic or practicable is a valuable trait. And it’s one that idealogs don’t possess.

    Kind of like, one would profess that History doesn’t repeat, so has no bearing on the future. And yes, looking in the rear view mirror will not allow you to see where you’re going! But those are two different things. Living in the past? Or, learning from the past! The good old days really were not that good, so you don’t have to live in them. But it’s good to learn the lessons of the past, lessons of history, and not repeat deleterious actions in the future!

    What is wisdom? It’s the sum of life’s experiences, the knowledge gained through life, and the practical application of it in a beneficial way.

    Wisdom is something the youngest don’t possess because their experience or experiences in life hasn’t caused enough good or bad in that life to learn from.

    And, let’s face it, humanity never learns it’s lessons.

  8. I disliked Franken enough to wish him gone from the Senate many times. We had professional differences and let’s just say, he could be a real pain. Even I think the Dems went too far in kicking him out. Pragmatism is in short supply on the left these days. On the other hand, truth is in short supply on the right. (I know I’m playing the both sides game, but I can’t not do that here.)

  9. To err is human, to forgive divine. (Alexander Pope)

    Perfectionism sets anyone or anything up for ultimate failure. Despite best efforts, we are all fallible and make mistakes. Some of these mistakes are trivial, while others may be be very serious, and even fatal.

    So, how does one best cope with fallibility?

    Hugh Mann, a physician in Missouri, gave one set of suggestions:

    “First, we must recognize and accept our fallibility as inevitable. Second, we must provide safeguards for our fallibility, such as checklists and oversight by colleagues. Third, we must treat our mistakes with acknowledgement and apology, not denial and cover-ups. And, finally, we must analyze our mistakes in order to avoid repeating them. Fallibility is an inherent part of the human condition, and we must not be ashamed of our humanity.”

    While these observations might be construed as provided in a medical context, they have applicability to any organization. A purist orientation or approach to any endeavor spawns eventual failure, since it denies the human condition. Embracing the imperfect recognizes this reality and elevates the value of knowledge gained in one’s life, navigating through experiences both good and bad. As Einstein noted, “Wisdom is not a product of schooling, but of a lifelong attempt to acquire it.”

  10. Party and dogma work well for the Koch family. Incrementalism is for the peons and those with no agency and lobbying resources. Acceptance of incremental victories is just another method of letting your so called leaders off the hook when they refuse to represent your interests. Raytheon does not depend on incrementalism.

  11. “Our/my way or the highway” only works for authoritarians. Cultural/political change comes from “ultimate sausage making” – discussion, incrementalism, research, piloting/experimentation and especially, working across lines. As the younger generations take over, the hope for more of this seems dim with their hyper focus on ME, having fun and my bubbles. For them, it is mostly about virtue flashing and then shrugging.

    The Right Ecosystem is an exemplary example of sophisticated, but ugly and disgusting tasting, sausage invading our tastes each day.

  12. As a New Yorker, I was appalled at Gillibrand’s stance in the Al Franken case. She refused to provide a forum for him to provide information. She ruled him guilty without benefit of a hearing. While I will vote for her in any general election, if someone decides to run against her in the primary, I will give serious consideration to voting for her opponent.

  13. Ian. Respectfully disagree. Acceptance of incremental victories is how all progress happens. Immediate radical change always involves using force to make people go along with something they find unacceptable. That inevitably leads to equally extreme backlash and incites violence. This is the way wars begin.
    Killing the slow mules who are pulling your wagon doesn’t get you there faster.

  14. David Stippler,

    Your comment was very pragmatic and laced with wisdom! Excellent, I appreciate the thought and originality put into it.

  15. “Identity politics” is a great example for today. Reported this morning regarding a key holdup in the proposed budget bill to fund the government and avoid a shutdown:

    “The bill’s unveiling was delayed by haggling over language related to location of the FBI’s future headquarters. Maryland lawmakers have argued that ensuring predominately Black communities get their fair share of federal investments should be more thoroughly considered as part of the selection process. They are advocating for building the headquarters at one of two sites in Maryland’s Prince George’s County.

    In September, the General Services Administration issued a site selection plan based on five criteria, the most heavily weighted at 35% was proximity to the FBI training academy in Quantico, Virginia. Advancing equity was weighted at 15%.”

    Just the facts, sirs and ma’ams…

  16. Lester, I wish you’d stop dissing the younger generations. It’s not like our generation has been so great. Look at the messes we are leaving them that we write about in these posts every day.

  17. A “purist” in scientific terms (extremist in political terms) is focused on hypotheses, but a “pragmatist” is focused on politics. They both contribute but neither gets things done without the other.

    Functional politics fertilize both sources of insight because the plants of progress have to be started in a greenhouse and then moved out into the fields to produce. Generally “think tanks” are the greenhouses. Sometimes the streets are.

    Of course, all this worked fine before politicians abandoned the field to entertainers who specialize in getting elected but have no idea how to do politics once the job is theirs. They are among the earliest examples of the Peter Principle which says that many of us get promoted to our level of incompetence. Entertainers governing reach theirs the minute they are elected.

    Of course like for all generalities there are specific exceptions. Zelenski and Al Franken come to mind.

  18. Lester,

    Right on point, nailed it! I guess some folks have trouble with comprehension when they read the thread that Sheila posted. But that’s okay, I guess so-called teachers have their down days!

  19. Sharon, WADR…we passed Civil Rights, we passed Voting Rights, we created the Environmental Protection Agency before anyone heard the term “climate change”…

    The messes are our fault to the extent that we ignored the “in our face” early words/work of Newt Gingrich, the Koch brothers, et al.

    Given what I do right now, it is pretty clear that most of the people who really want to do the hard work of change are aged 60-90. So, sadly though, IPIO – I’m proud I’m old…

  20. Professor: Would allowing political party officials, elected by party activists,
    any role in the distribution of public campaign funding be an example of
    “the perfect being the enemy of the good”? What “perfect” is on offer?

  21. Exactly:” Inappropriate behaviors occur on a continuum…”. As do all the things! Life happens within a 360-degree range of possibility rather than a 2-degree, either/or, range. I think you thought my book, The Tao of Nonviolence, was too simple with the graphics. I don’t know. It is for beginners. But. The fact that although our world and everything in it is interconnected and holistic (rather than fragmented and dualistic) is an open secret – no one at least in western cultures teaches it. The problem is that the powerful like/believe and – critically only teach – the love/hate, win/lose organizational structure that allows hierarchy with “themselves” on top. We need to begin practicing & teaching holistic thinking in earnest. (…in my opinion)

  22. Lester, I agree that our generation has accomplished good things, but as you point out, we have also made mistakes. Where I think we disagree is in the way we view today’s youth. I expect our grandparent’s generation would have said some of the same things about us that you say about the young of today.
    Every generation is composed of a mixture of all kinds of people, geniuses and dull witted, leaders and followers, compassionate and cruel, educated and ignorant, etc. The youth of today are no different in that regard. I just think it is inaccurate and unhelpful to describe them as all fitting into your perceived stereotype of them.

  23. Sharon – I respectfully refer you to the works of prominent scientist Dr. Jean Twenge – “Generation ME” and “iGen”. Real data…real science.

  24. Hey Lester,

    I just bought those books on Amazon as I was still reading your comment! Actually, right after I finished. I’ll look forward to expanding my knowledge on that subject. Thanks for that info.

  25. Hey Lester,

    I went ahead and pre-ordered her book ‘Generations,’ that really looks fascinating.

  26. Depending on the ingredients in the loaf of bread,it is wiser to accept the half loaf than none at all.But that doesn’t mean you give up
    the battle for the other half down the road. You can add slice by slice to the plate. Think of the history of social security.

  27. Lester has found confirmation of his disdain for young people, and failed to consult the considerable volume of criticism of Twenge’s books. A “quick and dirty” search pulled up dozens, among them:

    “Her first major foray into millennial thinkery was her 2006 book Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — And More Miserable Than Ever Before. Twenge expanded on the theme in 2009 with The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.

    These books pandered to the same complaints old people have been making about young people since time immemorial, with just enough techno-scare to make them seem fresh and relevant. And they established Twenge as a go-to quote factory for cranky thinkpieces on millennials, ushering in a new wave of hand wringing over our supposed shortcomings.”

    Speaking to The New York Times in 2013, Professor Jeffrey Arnett of Clark University was critical of Twenge’s research on narcissism among young people, stating: “I think she is vastly misinterpreting or over-interpreting the data, and I think it’s destructive”,

    “First, while considerably more 12th graders today (62%) say having lots of money is important than in 1975 (46%), all of this increase took place from 1975 to 1985 (61%), with a subsequent decline from 1990 (70%) through 2005. Thus, it could not have been the product of self-esteem education or any recent influence on materialism. Second, the percentage of high school seniors who say they want “a job which provides you with a chance to earn a good deal of money” has not changed in 30 years (86% in 1975, 87% in 2005). Apparently, students in 2005 were not greedier than students in 1975 so much as they were more attuned to the fact that to have money, they were going to have to earn it themselves. Further, 2005 students value “making a contribution to society” (65%) much more than their 1975 counterparts (53%) and have backed up that sentiment with record-high levels of volunteering. Students today are not disengaged and self-fixated, as Twenge charges.”

  28. Sheila,

    I respect your posting and, like many kinds of research, there are critics. Suggest everyone also look at research on increasing loneliness and disconnectedness among the young as well as (again in ’22) a very mixed and mostly disappointing effort on voting.

  29. Amen, Sheila. The dogma fights exist on all sides, and while I love those on my side who aim for the stars, there is that thing called gravity we have to recognize. Once in a great while there are dramatic gains, but most of the time, progress is incremental.

    Lives were lost in the decades-long quest for perfect, universal health care. So perfection does have its costs. Let’s do all we can for as many as we can as soon as we can.

  30. Lester, I’ve started reading “gIven” by Twenge. I’ll get back to you when I’ve had time to digest it. It seemed to get more positive reviews than than the other two I looked up, so decided that would be a good place to start.

  31. Lester,

    It seems to me after perusing the subject, There are many more favorable opinions towards professor Twinge and Donnely than not!

    It seems to me this sort of all in or not has happened before on this blog. But, peer reviews on the value of research by Twinge is more positive than negative.

  32. “An accusation of impropriety should be considered a rebuttable presumption–true, until and unless there is probative evidence to the contrary.” –Sheila Kennedy–

    Proving the negative?

    Or the contrary: Innocent until proven guilty.

  33. Before we paint with too broad a brush, remember that the Progressive Caucus agreed to compromise, based on promises by Manchin to deal with the rest later. He reneged. It was Blue Dog Manchin who insisted on his way or the highway.

    I will skip other examples I have cited before in other contexts about Progressives being reasonable.

    That being said, I couldn’t agree more on the problem. Ukraine has a comedian turned politician as president and he is respected throughout most of the world; our comedian turned politician who was respected, at least in large parts of the US, had a career ended by Gillibrand.

    MeToo does present a problem – after centuries of women’s voices being ignored in these matters, we sometimes seem to have flipped from “innocent until proven guilty” to “guilty once accused” – and as has been pointed out, leering and raping are considered the same crime.

    I am certain that many, if not most Progressive organizations have these squabbles that Goldberg reports. Liberals/Progressives have been forming circular firing squads for ages. My mother told me how her father used to sit around with his cronies arguing politics – they were all socialist arguing which flavor was best (this was the 1920s-1930s).

    Lester – on the FBI building, you identified a real problem, but I am afraid I disagree with your diagnosis. That squabble is an ancient American tradition called “pork barrel politics”. Every Congress person and Senator wants to brag that they brought home more government money. The ideal is for every congressional district to receive $2 in government funds for each $1 the citizens pay in taxes. I think the math is related to Reagonomics, but I can’t be sure.

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