Pragmatists or Ideologues

An article by Christopher Hayes in The Nation has received a considerable amount of attention today. Hayes looks at the view that Barack Obama is a pragmatist as opposed to an ideologue. The problem with this evaluation is that the choice is not one of pure pragmatism versus pure ideology. Obama does not appear to be an ideologue such as George Bush and the Republicans who governed based upon their ideology regardless of whether the facts showed that their policies were wrong. This does not mean that a pragmatist is, or should be, acting without any principles.

Perhaps the best description of Obama’s views in the article is seen when Hayes considers the interpretation of someone close to Obama,Cass Sunstein:

Obama adviser Cass Sunstein took to the pages of The New Republic to defend his onetime University of Chicago law school colleague from charges of flip-flopping. “Obama has not betrayed anyone,” he wrote. “The real problem lies in the assumption, still widespread on both the left and the right, that Obama is a doctrinaire liberal whose positions can be deduced simply by asking what the left thinks.”

For Sunstein, the fact that Obama’s views “have never been simple to characterize,” that he is a “minimalist” who “prefers solutions that can be accepted by people with a wide variety of theoretical inclinations,” is his defining trait and chief virtue. This, Sunstein contends, is particularly salient in the wake of the Bush years. “Many people on the left want Obama to be the anti-Bush,” he wrote. “But what, exactly, does this mean? To some, it means a kind of left-wing Bushism–the mirror image of the Bush administration, with its rigidity, its insistence on enduring political divisions, and its ruthlessly Manichean approach to political life…. But in his empiricism, his curiosity, his insistence on nuance, and his lack of dogmatism, Obama is indeed a sort of anti-Bush–and perhaps the best kind.”

The chief failure of Bushism, according to Sunstein, is not its content but its form. Not the substance of ideology but the fact that he was too wedded to it, too rigid and dogmatic. It’s a view widely held in Washington. Many, like Sunstein, have drawn a lesson from the past eight years that is not about the failure of conservatism–neo or otherwise–or the dangers of the particularly toxic ideological disposition of the Bush administration, of larding public dollars on your cronies and friends, of exacerbating inequality while gutting regulatory oversight, of eviscerating centuries-old common law protections or of starting pre-emptive wars.

Pragmatism must also be guided by adherence to principles. Hayes uses the Iraq war as a potential example of where ideologues triumphed over pragmatists:

Indeed, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, “pragmatists” of all stripes–Alan Dershowitz, Richard Posner–lined up to offer tips and strategies on how best to implement a practical and effective torture regime; but ideologues said no torture, no exceptions. Same goes for the Iraq War, which many “pragmatic” lawmakers–Hillary Clinton, Arlen Specter–voted for and which ideologues across the political spectrum, from Ron Paul to Bernie Sanders, opposed. Of course, by any reckoning, the war didn’t work. That is, it failed to be a practical, nonideological improvement to the nation’s security. This, despite the fact that so many willed themselves to believe that the benefits would clearly outweigh the costs. Principle is often pragmatism’s guardian. Particularly at times of crisis, when a polity succumbs to collective madness or delusion, it is only the obstinate ideologues who refuse to go along. Expediency may be a virtue in virtuous times, but it’s a vice in vicious ones.

This is again a false division. Ideologues were on both sides of the war. The Bush administration was dominated by ideologues who ignored the reality of the situation. It was not necessary to be an ideologue on the other side to oppose the war. Many pragmatists opposed the war with arguments, which turned out to be correct, as to why the war was not in our national interest. Many opposed the war based upon a combination of principle and pragmatism. Of course one of the opponents of the war was Barack Obama.

The concept of pragmatism is currently being embraced because of the manner in which the Republicans failed due to ignoring reality when it conflicted with their ideology. Current praise for the concept of pragmatism does not mean a rejection of all principle. In fact, the opposite is true as both a different ideology was desired along with greater respect for pragmatism by many who voted Democratic in 2008.

While Hayes is generally critical of many forms of pragmatism, he does conclude with a type he can support:

Obama could do worse than to look to John Dewey, another onetime resident of Hyde Park and the founder of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which Obama’s daughters attend. Dewey developed the work of earlier pragmatists in a particularly fruitful and apposite manner. For him, the crux of pragmatism, and indeed democracy, was a rejection of the knowability of foreordained truths in favor of “variability, initiative, innovation, departure from routine, experimentation.”

Dewey’s pragmatism was reformist, not radical. He sought to ameliorate the excesses of early industrial capitalism, not to topple it. Nonetheless, pragmatism requires an openness to the possibility of radical solutions. It demands a skepticism not just toward the certainties of ideologues and dogmatism but also of elite consensus and the status quo. This is a definition of pragmatism that is in almost every way the opposite of its invocation among those in the establishment. For them, pragmatism means accepting the institutional forces that severely limit innovation and boldness; it means listening to the counsel of the Wise Men; it means not rocking the boat.

But Dewey understood that progress demands that the boat be rocked. And his contemporary Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood it as well. “The country needs,” Roosevelt said in May 1932, “and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.”

That is pragmatism we can believe in. Our times demand no less.

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