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Saturday, December 13, 2008

 
Pragmatic Idealism

by digby

I don't have time today to delve into this fine piece by Chris Hayes (which many of you have no doubt already read) about Obama's pragmatism and what it means. Hayes gets to the nub of the discussions we've all been having about Obama's choices for the cabinet, the "angry left" and the Overton Window and how we think about ideology.

This one point is worth highlighting:

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.'"

I would just add that the constitution itself enshrines that notion with the Bill of Rights. nothing pragmatic about free speech or due process. but it's in there because the experience of human kind shows that you can excuse any kind of behavior as "necessary" if you really want to. Indeed, we've just seen that played out before our eyes.

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.

I actually disagree with Chris a little bit there. I think everyone said that Greenspan wasn't ideological. But that was just Fed PR. In reality everyone knew that Greenspan came from the right side of the dial. The issue in American politics is less ideology than which ideology. Indeed, conservative ideology has been something openly and enthusaistically embraced up until very recently by anyone who wanted membership in the political establishment. It was just a couple of years ago that Joe Klein was saying things like this:

You know, I'm pretty much a social conservative on a lot of stuff. I'm certainly opposed to late term abortion, and I think the deal to be made is morning after pill is legal, anything after that probably shouldn't be...in the past year, I've stood for the following things. I've taken the following positions. I agreed with the President on social security reform. I supported his two Supreme Court nominees, and I support, even though I opposed this war, I support staying the course in Iraq, and doing whatever we have to do in order to stabilize the region.

Obviously, progressive solutions to the nation's ills can sneak in the back door under the guise of pragmatism, but when the other side reasserts itself it boldly proclaims itself ideological, identifying believers through a strong tribal identity. The end result is a politics that operates between the two poles of centrism and conservatism as embodied by Joe Klein. And the result is messes like the one we're in now.

As I said, I'll write more about this next week when I have time, but I urge you to read Hayes' article in the meantime and consider all the points he makes. At the end of the piece he makes an observation that has made me think very hard about what pragmatism might mean in terms of Obama and how it applies to this time of crisis:

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.

That's exactly what the doctor ordered, but we don't know yet how the new administration is going to operate. Obama is a somewhat inscrutable politician and the Republican wrecking crew is saying pretty clearly that they don't believe in no stinking pragmatism. But Hayes is certainly right when he says our times demand no less.