Friday, January 16, 2009

Pragmatism vs. Ideology: A False Choice

Not too long ago, Christopher Hayes ofThe Nation wrote a very thought-provoking piece about the concept of "pragmatism," which is heard constantly these days in reference to Obama's governing style. Much like the "team of rivals" concept, it has become common wisdom, repeated endlessly.
It is important that both of these concepts face scrutiny. A few scholars have started doing so with Doris Kearns Goodwin's thesis (for example, here). Along the same lines, Hayes has put forward a critique of pragmatism as an idea and a governing philosophy.
Without quoting him at length (the article is worth reading in full), what we take from it is several key points:
Pragmatism in the mind of the body-politic is the opposite of rigidity, i.e. beingnon-ideological. The Bush administration has become synonymous with this kind of governance - making decisions based upon a certain set of goals and beliefs, and sticking to those decisions regardless of what on-the-ground reality is telling us. Stephen Colbert mocked President Bush during his famous White House Correspondents Dinner performancewhen he said:
The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will.
Similarly, in 2004, journalist Ron Suskind wrote a long article for the New York Times Magazine entitled "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush." In it, he included the following paragraphs, through which the public first became aware of the administration's apparent derision of what it had labled the "really-based community":
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
The larger idea as it relates to Hayes' piece is that the public - and most analysts and commentators these days - generally believe that when ideology trumps logic - a.k.a. pragmatism - bad policies result. This belief can be felt in public condemnations of Congressional inactivity in the face of large-scale challenges - its just politics as usual, the two side of the aisle won't work together, etc, etc. It's also one of the logical underpinnings of Obama's professed commitment to get Republicans and Democrats working together in Washington.
Within such a framework, pragmatism is the opposite of obstinacy. It is instead flexibility, a willingness to set aside one's ego to get something done on behalf of the broader society.
But Hayes takes this very notion to task. He first does away with the idea that anyone is non-ideological:

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.

Furthermore, if we think more deeply about it, pragmatism is often viewed as being the same thing as cowardice, spinelessness, and amorality. It's viewed as justifying conciliatory action. Bill Clinton put forward the idea of "triangulation" during his presidency. Today, it is often derided by those on the left as justifying centrist policies (in other words, he wasn't being ideological enough). Or consider this famous historical example involving Abraham Lincoln. As Hayes writes:
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.
What is more, ideology often stands in the way of conventional wisdom which may or may not be impractical. We at times are in desperate need of ideologues to protect us from impractical "pragmatism." Take the example of the Iraq war. As Hayes writes:
[The] 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, non-ideological 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.
Hayes rightly sees the whole issue of Obama's pragmatism as being tied up in something larger, specifically the policies he is likely to promote as President. Those on the left are concerned that he is surrounding himself with "pragmatists" who will push centrist policies. Those closer to the center - realize that we're talking about ideologues here - have applauded his cabinet appointments for their pragmatism. Their idea here is that Obama isn't going to immobilize the government through his own ideologically-driven agenda, and instead has picked smart people who know how to get something done. But this analysis is superficial, as Hayes explains:
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.
The truth lies somewhere else. As Hayes concludes, pragmatism itself requires courage and boldness. What is pragmatic at any particular time might be considered radical in another. He cites FDR's understanding of pragmatism - another president besides Lincoln that Obama is compared to, more because of historical circumstances than biography:
"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.
And what we must understand is that those experiments will in turn be influenced by Obama's ideology. As a final thought, consider this except from Obama's speech at the 2008 DNC:
It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it. For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy - give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is - you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps - even if you don't have boots. You're on your own. Well it's time for them to own their failure. It's time for us to change America.
Those are ideologically-driven words. And those who agreed with the ideology, emotionally, viscerally, cheered wildly.
Ideology, Hayes tells us, isn't the enemy. It is what gives us a moral footing. He quotes Glenn Greenwald:
[A]s 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.'"
The trick is to get the good of ideology - the courage needed to state one's vision boldly, and the moral rudder that comes with it - without getting the bad - a willful refusal to accept facts that don't correspond with what you want to believe. And the same is true of pragmatism: we need the good - the willingness to try new things in the name of finding something that works - without the bad - a willingness to do anything if we think it will ameliorate a problem, regardless of the moral coast.
How will Obama walk this tightrope? We will soon see.

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