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art of the possible

The “art of the possible” is idea that politics is a matter of pragmatism, instead of idealism. According to this worldview, politics is a matter of creating achievable goals and implementing them in the real world.

The idea probably dates back to ancient times. However, it’s most closely associated with the 19th century German statesman Otto von Bismarck, who was behind the reunification of Germany. Bismarck famously said that “politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”

The economist Kenneth Galbraith expressed a more negative view of political pragmatism when he said, “politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”

Politicians generally use the “art of the possible” as a positive phrase. The term suggests intelligence, common sense, and an ability to work within the system.

President Biden used the phrase “art of the possible” during his first presidential press conference, at the start of 2021. A reporter asked the president whether he planned to abolish the filibuster, and Biden responded:

Successful electoral politics is the art of the possible. Let’s figure out how we can get this done and move in the direction of significantly changing the abuse of even the filibuster rule first. It’s been abused from the time it came into being — by an extreme way in the last 20 years. Let’s deal with the abuse first.

Pundits often talk about “the art of the possible” when they want to explain why a politician seems to be contradicting themselves. When a leader acts against his or her own stated principles, it’s because they are being pragmatic and seeking out the art of the possible.

In 2014, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an editorial titled “Obama touts the art of the possible.” The piece was subtitled “Obama offers a realistic approach in face of political realities.” The Star Tribune’s editorial board argued that the president had been elected on a rush of idealism but that over the course of his years in office, he had turned to a practical approach.  

“The grand legislative ambitions of the hope-and-change president are a distant memory now, replaced by a more pragmatic realization of what still might be possible,” the editorial claimed.

Similarly, back in 2016 the conservative America published a piece expressing strong admiration for former president Ronald Reagan. The article, “Remember the Real Reagan,” discussed some of Reagan’s policies including those which America magazine disagreed with. The author concluded that “Mr. Reagan was a politician of principle who nonetheless viewed politics as the art of the possible and compromise as an indispensable color in the artist’s palette.”

The “art of the possible” isn’t always a popular approach, of course. In 2016, Wellesley College released the audio and the transcript of Hillary Clinton’s commencement address. The young college graduate spoke passionately against the idea of pragmatism in politics, saying, “we feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.” 

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