Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Is Obama a Pragmatist?

Jonah Goldberg discusses Obama's recent claim that:
"I am not an ideologue," President Obama insisted at his truly refreshing confab with the Republican caucus in Baltimore last Friday. When he heard some incredulous murmurs and chuckles from the audience in response to the idea that the most sincerely ideological president in a generation is no ideologue, he added a somewhat plaintive, "I'm not."
It's such a loaded word, it would be helpful to have a definition of "ideologue."

If it means "dogmatist" then Obama is a mixed case. He's dogmatic about Progressive ideology (i.e. philosophy), but pragmatic about how he applies it. It's no accident that Dewey was one of the foremost developers of both Progressivism and Pragmatism. Far from being antithetical, they're complementary. (One refers to content, the other to a method.)

If it just means someone who has a philosophy, that's true of everyone. It couldn't be otherwise. If it means having a consistent, coherent, or comprehensive philosophy... these days that's true of very few on all points of the political compass. Pragmatism, in the technical sense of that term, is the overwhelmingly dominant philosophy of our day, and half the cause of most of our problems. (Progressivism is the other half.)

Finally, the word "pragmatism" does NOT mean "practical," in theory or practice. Dewey would have shuddered at the idea, and – in fact – a pragmatist (i.e. someone who doesn't use a conscious, consistent philosophy to guide his or her actions) is the most impractical creature on Earth. Such a person is continually buffeted by winds internal and external, his emotions on the one hand, the beliefs of others on the other.

All those confusions over important words are a major source of countless unnecessary debates. In too many cases, that confusion is no doubt deliberate. The last thing a pragmatic Progressive would want is clear definitions.


Michael Moeller said...

Very good distillation of Progressivism and pragmatism. And that's the rub, the Progressives have the luxury of pragmatism.

It is amazing how consistent *they* are in terms of ideology. Each public policy is met with a call to ever greater government controls. Do they need total control to advance their agenda? Nope

Whether banking or healthcare or energy policy or any other policy, they can afford concessions. Allow tort reform for healthcare. Allow the building of a few nuclear plants. etc. etc.

Doesn't matter, they attack the problem piecemeal. Once a drop of socialist acid is applied to the problem, after the inevitable disfigurement a call will be made for greater and greater doses of acid to fix the problem created by the initial dose. The banking industry is a prime example. Regardless of the myriad of regulations and controls, the Progressives still blame the free-market and are constantly calling for even more byzantine regulations.

And when the policies are met with strong opposition, what is the tactic? As Obama is currently doing, label your opponents as "obstructionists" in the way of progress and reform. It is time for the conservatives to learn to reject this notion and that nothing can be gained from such a compromise.

Jeff Perren said...

Crystal clear and very insightful comments, Michael.

Thank you.

VH said...

Spot on posts! I would add Utilitarianism to the mix of Progressive ideology and Pragmatism for our modern ills.

Jeff Perren said...


Good point, though I tend to classify Utilitarianism under the broader heading of Pragmatism - as the latter is the former applied (in part) to issues of value selection. But good to make it explicit.