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The Pragmatist | The Nation

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The Pragmatist

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Christopher Hayes
Christopher Hayes
Chris Hayes, Editor-at-Large of The Nation, hosts “All In with Chris Hayes” at 8 p.m. ET Monday...

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The streets of Ferguson are not safe for those who would report the chaos. 

Dr. Joep Lange believed that if he could gather the necessary political resources, he could help erradicate the AIDS epidemic wihtin a generation. He perished tragically on his way to a conference where he planned to share his vision. 

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 Times stressed his "pragmatic politics," while the Washington Post's David Ignatius refers to "The Pragmatic Obama," and one of Obama's most trusted confidantes, Valerie Jarrett, told USA Today, 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 arsenal.

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 quaint.

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.

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