... my radar goes off and my guard goes up.
As someone who has led several successful against-the-odds grassroots campaigns, I've often heard the admonishments that "Now, we have to be pragmatic..." This is usually followed by another warning that "we can't be too idealistic." The perfect is the enemy of the good, etc. etc.
And then we ignored the hand-wringers, who warned us about what we couldn't "realistically" achieve, and fought a hard-nosed, well-organized, and idealistic campaign. And we won. By being both idealistic and pragmatic.
So in my experience, at least two main motivations typically lie behind the invocation of a need for people to be "pragmatic." I'll describe them in more detail after the jump...
The better, but far less common of the two motivations is a hard-headed pragmatism, one based on a forthright observation of facts on the ground. This approach continues to aim high to achieve difficult long-term goals, and to keep working to find concrete means to overcome those short-term obstacles which appear to temporarily require accommodation.
But the far more prevalent (and almost entirely specious) motivation is to justify a failure of vision or integrity -- opportunistically using a nearly-indistinguishable posture of "pragmatism" to defend the status quo. This approach is satisfied to wag one's finger about how "we must be realistic," and considers this the last word we ever have to hear about aspiring to any higher or more ambitious goals.
Invoking "pragmatism" is thus often a cover for simply not having the imagination, integrity, competence and guts necessary to work cogently but fearlessly for real change.
Distinguishing between the two can be... tricky. Which type of pragmatist Barack Obama turns out to be remains to be proven.