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.
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 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.