The Emptiness of Obama's Pragmatism

By Bronsther, Jacob | The Christian Science Monitor, May 26, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Emptiness of Obama's Pragmatism


Bronsther, Jacob, The Christian Science Monitor


In President Obama's vision for Washington, "pragmatism" will reign, "ideology" will wane, and an era of civility, reason, and bipartisanship will emerge. An analysis of what pragmatism really means explains why Mr. Obama's plan has not (and cannot) work. It also reveals the emptiness of pragmatism as national principle. Pragmatism refers to one philosophical movement and two political ideas. Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey founded the philosophical movement in late 19th- and early 20th-century America. Philosophical pragmatists are anti-intellectual philosophers. They shiver at the thought of Descartes poking his fire, wondering if life is all a dream. They believe there are no answers to purely theoretical questions (such as whether we have free will), because there exists no pure realm of reason. There is only the external world where people flourish and suffer every day. As such, a philosophical or ethical theory's validity depends entirely upon its impact on human conduct and experience. For James, things are "true" - and thus we ought to accept them and act upon them - insofar as they "work" for people, making their lives more satisfactory. Through philosophical pragmatism, the ethical questions of politics became scientific questions. A lawmaker was to assess a policy's impact on the real world. While this seems straightforward now, it created a revolution in American politics and academia. Robert LaFollete, governor of Wisconsin from 1901-06, exemplified and in part initiated the movement. A Republican and later a Progressive, LaFollete enacted the "Wisconsin Idea," whereby he empowered the University of Wisconsin-Madison to examine legislative proposals technically and expertly. LaFollete practiced the first type of political pragmatism: Expert Rule (Pragmatism 1). It is no coincidence that the American Political Science Association was founded in 1903. Obama embraces Pragmatism 1. He has commissioned various "czars," such as health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, to use their technical expertise to direct policy. And Obama advertises his own developed policies - from abortion to Afghanistan - as pragmatic, reasoned solutions. To be clear, a supporter of Pragmatism 1 needn't endorse philosophical pragmatism wholeheartedly. People tend to associate Pragmatism 1 with reasonableness. Its opposite is ideology. Beholden dogmatically to a particular theory or worldview, ideological policymakers write legislation without assessing its impact on people's actual lives. On the right, one who believed sodomy should be illegal, in the name of Christianity, would be ideological. On the left, this characterization would apply to one who endorsed pacifism even during an enemy invasion. Pragmatism 2 is simpler. When dealing with contentious issues, policies engineered to receive bipartisan support exhibit Pragmatism 2. If Pragmatism 1 is pragmatic policy, Pragmatism 2 is pragmatic politics. It seeks bipartisanship out of concern for preventing legislative gridlock when action is required and creating national unity during a period of crisis, among other benefits. Obama has governed so far as though Pragmatism 1 entails Pragmatism 2. He presumes that policies forged by reason, evidence, and "unbiased" expertise (Pragmatism 1) - those policies that "work" - will garner the support of all reasonable members of Congress and thus bridge partisan divides (Pragmatism 2). He bases his belief in the possibility of national and political consensus on this faulty argument. Consensus has not emerged in Washington because disagreement exists over the definition of Pragmatism 1. …

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