Obama's Pragmatism

Chris Hayes has an excellent meditation on the subject in the latest issue of The Nation.

One thing I was disappointed not to see in the article: I’ve been told on good authority that one of Obama’s nicknames in law school was “prago,” as in “pragmatist.” This sounds pretty implausible, I’ll admit. “Prago” sounds too much like a condiment. That said, I spent years of my life being referred to as “Raekwon the Chef,” so who know?

Back to the essay, which is, among other things, a critique of the fetish for pragmatism (per se) and a defense of ideological politics.

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.

As the essay draws to a close, Chris offers a defense of a pragmatic approach to implementing progressive change, drawing on the hope that Obama’s incrementalism is rooted in the left tradition and that his pragmatism includes an “openness to the possibility of radical solutions.”

My minor objection to the piece is that I think Chris is too dismissive of Sunstein’s theory of Obama, i.e., his notion that Obama is a deliberative minimalist.

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.

Chris then outlines his persuasive objections to this kind of deliberative minimalism, but he gives us no reason to believe that this doesn’t reflect Obama’s normative instincts. I can think of a not-good reason, namely that Sunstein could be reflecting his own sensibilities (the ideas of “judicial minimalism” and “incompletely theorized agreements” are among Sunstein’s key theoretical contributions). Oddly enough, a really huge number of people of all political and ideological stripes come away from long interactions with Obama believing that he thinks exactly as they do, hence Obama’s Sphinx-like magnetism. All the same, Sunstein isn’t the only person who argues that Obama is a deliberative minimalist — I’ve heard this from a few people, and it doesn’t strike me as crazy. The Sunstein thesis fits the facts better than most.

Briefly, Chris name-checks Glenn Greenwald in an interesting way:

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.’”

Of course, Obama established his foreign policy bona fides in part by emphasizing that he does not oppose all ways — only “dumb” wars. Which is to say, Obama has no ideological objections to an aggressive foreign policy, one that would involve striking deep into Pakistan if the circumstances demanded it, or taking military action against an intransigent Iran. This could all be political posturing. If it’s not, I think it lends credence to Sunstein’s thesis.

We can all agree, however, that the answer to this question is basically unknowable. Even if Obama has a very long presidency full of consequential decisions, I’m pretty sure we’ll still be debating this question.

Briefly, Chris quotes John Dewey at the tail end of the piece:

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.”

This, for what it’s worth, is exactly what a lot of people on the non-left fear about the extension of state power — that it will squelch this learning process. Government in the New Deal era was famously agile and risk-taking, and it had many striking successes. But of course it also had a lot of failures, which led to the demands for transparency and accountability that have over time made government less risk-taking and agile.