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The Pragmatist | The Nation

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The Pragmatist

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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."

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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 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 way.

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 Club, 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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