The Pragmatist

In case you haven't heard, Barack Obama is a pragmatist. Everybody
agrees on this. Joe Biden, accepting Obama's nod as VP at his unveiling
event in Springfield, Illinois, called him a "clear-eyed pragmatist."
Describing Obama's rise through Chicago politics, the New York
stressed his "pragmatic politics," while the Washington
's David Ignatius refers to "The Pragmatic Obama," and one of
Obama's most trusted confidantes, Valerie Jarrett, told USA
, soon after his election-day victory, "I'm not sure people
understand how pragmatic he is. He's a pragmatist. He really wants to
get things done."

Obama is clear on this point as well, touting his national security team
as "shar[ing] my pragmatism about the use of power" and telling Steve
Kroft during his recent 60 Minutes interview that when it comes
to economic policy, he doesn't want to "get bottled up in a lot of
ideology and 'Is this conservative or liberal?' My interest is finding
something that works."

Fair enough. We get it. He's a pragmatist. But just what does that mean?
It can't simply be that he's comfortable with compromise, willing to
maneuver in the world as it is. That goes without saying. The man was
just elected president of the United States. Head-in-the-clouds
idealists do not, as a rule, come to control the American nuclear

So we are left to interpret. In the weeks since his election, people in
the press and in politics, the Beltway and the netroots have been
sifting through the scraps of leaked information, and awkwardly reading
these entrails for signs of the administration's future direction, to
come to understand just what this pragmatism will look like. Several
factors make the project difficult. The onrush of events, with the tidal
waves of economic distress, make it nearly impossible to predict
policies. Who would have imagined the Bush administration overseeing a
state takeover of the nation's largest insurance conglomerate? If things
keep going in the direction they're headed, the most "pragmatic" policy
options--for instance, a wholesale nationalization of the financial
sector--may very well make the most fevered fantasies of radicals seem

On top of this, there's Obama's famous rhetorical dexterity, which he's
marshaled to tremendous effect--giving progressives as well as centrists
reasons to believe he shares their values and outlook. In a postelection
essay on Obama, George Packer noted these two strains of his campaign
rhetoric and dubbed them the "'progressive' Obama" and "the
'post-partisan' Obama."

In Washington "pragmatic" is a kind of code word for the latter, and
it's that Obama the Beltway establishment is happily embracing. On the
front page of the Times, in a "news analysis" (a recurring
feature that might as well be titled "Conventional Wisdom Digest"),
David Sanger pointed to the likely appointments of Hillary Clinton and
Timothy Geithner as suggesting that "Mr. Obama is planning to govern
from the center-right of his party, surrounding himself with
pragmatists"--that word again!--"rather than ideologues." David Brooks
could hardly contain himself: "the team he has announced so far is more
impressive than any other in recent memory," he gushed, praising it as
made of "open-minded individuals who are persuadable by evidence" and
"admired professionals" who are not "excessively partisan" and, probably
most important, "not ideological."

This isn't the first time we've been treated to a round of fawning over
Obama's post-ideological pose. Last spring, after sewing up the
Democratic nomination, Obama seemed, through a mix of statements and
votes, to take a sharp turn toward the center. He praised the Supreme
Court's decision to strike down DC's handgun ban, criticized the Court's
decision throwing out the death penalty for rapists and, most notably,
voted for a FISA bill that included telecom immunity after saying he
wouldn't. This earned him the ire of many progressives. 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.

No, through a kind of collective category error, they have alighted on a
far more general moral to the story: ideology, in any form, is
dangerous. "Obama's victory does not signal a shift in ideology in this
country," wrote Roger Simon in Politico. "It signals that the
American public has grown weary of ideologies." No less an ideologue
than Pat Buchanan has come to this same understanding: "If there is a
one root cause to the Bush failures," he wrote, "it has been his fatal
embrace of ideology."

If "pragmatic" is the highest praise one can offer in DC these days,
"ideological" is perhaps the sharpest slur. And it is by this twisted
logic that the crimes of the Bush cabinet are laid at the feet of the
blogosphere, that the sins of Paul Wolfowitz end up draped upon the
slender shoulders of Dennis Kucinich.

But privileging pragmatism over ideology, while perhaps understandable
in the wake of the Bush years, misses the point. For one thing, as Glenn
Greenwald has astutely pointed out on his blog, while ideology can lead
decision-makers to ignore facts, it is also what sets the limiting
conditions for any pragmatic calculation of interests. "Presumably,
there are instances where a proposed war might be very pragmatically
beneficial in promoting our national self-interest," Greenwald wrote,
"but is still something that we ought not to do. Why? Because as a
matter of principle--of ideology--we believe that it is not just to do
it, no matter how many benefits we might reap, no matter how much it
might advance our 'national self-interest.'"

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.

There's another problem with the fetishization of the pragmatic, which
is the brute fact that, at some level, ideology is inescapable. Obama
may have told Steve Kroft that he's solely interested in "what works,"
but what constitutes "working" is not self-evident and, indeed, is
impossible to detach from some worldview and set of principles. Alan
Greenspan, of all people, made this point deftly while testifying before
Henry Waxman's House Oversight Committee. Waxman asked Greenspan, "Do
you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish
you had not made?" To which Greenspan responded, "Well, remember that
what an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal
with reality. Everyone has one. You have to--to exist, you need an
ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not."

In Greenspan's case, it was not. But more destructive than his
ideological rigidity was the delusional pretense shared by so many
observers that he was operating without any ideology whatsoever. In a
1987 profile, which ran soon after Greenspan's appointment as Fed chair,
the Times quoted a fellow economist who said Greenspan didn't fit
into any set ideological category. "If he's anything," the colleague
remarked, "he's a pragmatist, and as such, he is somewhat
unpredictable.'' The rest of the article chronicled Greenspan's support
for wholesale deregulation of the financial industry and philosophical
devotion to Ayn Rand. It's tempting to conclude that Greenspan's
ideology was allowed to wreak the havoc it did only because it was never
actually called by its name.

Ironically, there are quite a few on the left who hope (and many on the
right who fear) that Obama will be able to pull off a similar trick.
Ideology is always most potent when least visible, when smuggled beneath
the cloak of "pragmatism." And there is a certain line of thought that
says that Obama's largely centrist, establishment-friendly cabinet and
staff picks are a brilliant means of husbanding his political capital,
co-opting the establishment and bringing the center toward him, inducing
it to buy into the bold, progressive sea change in American governance
he has planned.

Either way, there will be moments in the next four years when a
principled fight will be required, and if there is an uneasiness
rippling through the minds of some progressives, it arises from their
doubts about just how willing Obama will be to fight those fights. When
a friend of mine decided to run for office this year, someone suggested
that he write down a list of positions he wouldn't take, votes he
wouldn't cast, then put it in a safe and give someone the key. The idea
was that by committing himself in writing to some basic skeletal list of
principles, he'd be at least partially anchored against the slippery
slope of compromise that so often leads elected officials to lose their

Does Obama have such a list? And if so, what's on it?

This is not to say that there isn't something appealing and meaningful
about Obama's self-professed pragmatism. Pragmatism in common usage may
mean simply a practical approach to problems and affairs. But it's also
the name of the uniquely American school of philosophy whose doctrine is
that truth is pre-eminently to be tested by the practical consequences
of belief. What unites the two senses of the word is a shared skepticism
toward certainties derived from abstractions--one that is welcome and
bracing after eight years of a failed, faith-based presidency.

Both senses of the word also course through the life of Obama's hero,
Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was, most historians agree, deeply pragmatic in
the first sense. As the cable news networks have reminded us ad nauseam,
Lincoln brought political foes and countering viewpoints into his
cabinet, creating a "team of rivals" that many see as a blueprint for
Obama. (When Kroft asked Obama if this was the case, he replied that
Lincoln was "a very wise man.") Lincoln was also pragmatic about the
institution he helped end: "If I could save the Union without freeing
any slave I would do it," he wrote to newspaper editor Horace Greeley in
August 1862, "and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would
do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I
would also do that."

This is a kind of pragmatism that to our modern ears comes close to
colluding with evil, and it shows how even the most "pragmatic"
decisions are embedded in a hierarchy of values: in this case the
integrity of the nation over the human rights of millions of its
residents. But as Louis Menand argued in his book The Metaphysical
, the sentiment expressed in Lincoln's letter to Greeley was
widely shared: "For many white Americans after 1865, the abolitionists
were the century's villains.... They had driven a wedge into white
America, and they did it because they had become infatuated with an
idea. They marched the nation to the brink of self-destruction in the
name of an abstraction."

There is a faint echo of this notion in Obama's professed pragmatism,
and in his distaste for the culture war. The Civil War was the original
culture war, one so bloody and horrible it makes a mockery of our use of
martial metaphors to describe today's red-state, blue-state divisions.
Obama seemed to draw a link between the two when during his
election-night victory speech he reached out to his opponent's
supporters by quoting Lincoln: "As Lincoln said to a nation far more
divided than ours: 'We are not enemies, but friends.... Though passion
may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.'"

Pragmatism as a school of thought was born of a similar impulse of
reconciliation. Having witnessed, and in some cases experienced
firsthand, the horror of violence and irreconcilable ideological
conflict during the Civil War, William James, Charles Peirce and Oliver
Wendell Holmes were moved to reject the metaphysical certainty in
eternal truths that had so motivated the abolitionists, emphasizing
instead epistemic humility, contingency and the acquisition of knowledge
through practice--trial and error.

This tradition is a worthy inheritance for any president, particularly
in times as manifestly uncertain as these. And if there's a silver
thread woven into the pragmatist mantle Obama claims, it has its origins
in this school of thought. 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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