Monday, November 03, 2008

The Ideologues and the Philosophical Pragmatist

Daniel Larison, one of the remaining thoughtful conservatives, along with Andrew Sullivan, still misses the point, I think.
Everyone who is voting Obama to punish the GOP thinks that there is some small chance that the GOP might change its ways. The diversity of views among Obamacons reflects how many different future directions are expected, guaranteeing that many will be disappointed, but it also reflects how badly the GOP has failed on multiple fronts that it is simultaneously losing so many prominent and obscure Catholic pro-lifers, libertarians, foreign policy realists, moderates and small-government conservatives, among others, to a Democratic nominee who genuinely is the most liberal of any they have had since 1972. Under normal circumstances, a vote for Obama ought to be unthinkable for almost all of the people on the right who have endorsed him, but the GOP has failed so badly that it has made the unthinkable mundane and ordinary. It’s reaching a point where the report of another Obamacon endorsement is no more remarkable than when the leaves start falling in autumn. Far more important in the aftermath than coming up with new and amusing ways to mock the Obama endorsers is an effort to understand and remedy the profound failures that made this phenomenon possible before a major realignment does occur.
Yes, it's true that the Republican party is a mess. It is rife with corruption, demagoguery, and anti-intellectualism. It has led disastrous foreign and domestic policies over the past eight years. It has been the main supporter of one of the great moral stains on the history of the US - the exceptionalist institutionalization of torture. A viable GOP clearly has serious reflection to undertake. The promotion of Sarah Palin as a presidential candidate for 2012 is one key apparent direction of this reflection, which further demonstrates how utterly clueless the party has become.

But Larison misses the point. I would think that if you're a conservative, you would be less concerned about the GOP and more concerned about the state of conservatism as a fruitful political approach. The thoughtful conservatives still tie conservatism to the party, even while some of them seek to extract themselves from the party's grip. A party-less ideology has a tough road to follow for political saliency. But it's probably time to let that rotten GOP go, given the amount of damage it has done to itself, to the country, and to other countries. This is because conservative ideology has been captured by the GOP, turned dramatically to the right, and transformed into a religion of the GOP. Fidelity to the party has become the sole ideology. This is partially why you see Obamacons so harshly lambasted by their fellow GOPers. But that party-ideology has been losing any intellectual heft it ever had. It is now almost totally reactionary and based on membership and loyalty to the club. This makes it difficult to recruit new members other than the Sarah Palins of the world.

I think this kind of discussion about bolstering one side or the other of the ideological divide nonetheless misses something very important about Barack Obama, which both parties ought to understand better. It's uncontroversial to say that US political life is dualistic and polarized. Demagogues constantly prey on this polarization by reinforcing it. Thus, most of the pundit class can't see past the possibility of either a conservative-Republican ideology in power or a liberal ideology in power. For these people and their dualistic framework, an Obama victory is necessarily an ideological shift to the left. What neither the right nor many on the left get, however, is that Obama is not an ideologue. He's a pragmatist.

I don't mean "pragmatist" in the crass political sense of going with the socio-political flow or drastically diluting one's policy programs in order to get something-anything done or leverage support for some other attractive policy. I mean "pragmatist" in the philosophical sense, the form of philosophical critique that had its first generation in Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey and has been renewed with vigor over the past thirty years. These three thinkers were probably the three greatest philosophers to come out of the US., with deep roots in the longer lineage of American thought through Thoreau and Emerson, Jefferson and Madison and Franklin, and back to Jonathan Edwards, though naturalized and Darwinized by Peirce and Dewey in particular.

To put it simply, Obama seems to me an experimentalist problem-solver of a pragmatic stripe.

A pragmatist thinks in terms of problems and tools and experiments for solving them. A problem arises, which is such precisely because we don't have the conceptual or normative tools at hand to solve it. The pragmatist looks around for explanations, interpretations, analyses, arguments, and new understandings to try help us resolve the problem. If it's political, or a matter of policy, or a matter of ethics or legal interpretation, the pragmatist understands that we start from an irreducible pluralism of values that are crucial to even understanding the problem, let alone resolving it. In a pluralistic country such as the US, policy and political disputes are often disputes involving complex, competing values and ideas. They are problems of intelligent cooperation.

Ideological commitment of the sort that drives the US political system is problematic here - it may provide us with some useful interpretive tools, but it more than likely frames and constricts our understanding of the nature of the problem and the range of possible solutions a priori, prior to investigating the problem. This suggests that the truth of the matter comes prior to testing ideas and policies. The ideologist ends up, by default, resolving problems from a partial and usually self-interested perspective. Pragmatists think this has it all backwards.

The pragmatist seeks to suspend prior ideological commitments and focus rather on generating ongoing dialogue, attempting to build a community of public discussion, in order to gain the fullest possible view of the problem as well as in order to eventually engage the most democratic means for resolving it.

Proposed solutions are tested over and over against real, multi-faceted experience rather than against their fidelity to ideological commitments. Sometimes, we will hit upon policy solutions that work well enough given the constellation of interests. But we'll eventually, more than likely, need to revisit them at some point as new circumstances generate new issues to resolve. There are two crucial components to this process: 1) an assumption of the fallibility of any one view or idea combined with a pluralism of values entails a fuller, epistemologically robust, understanding of the nature of a given policy problem; and 2) the experimental, adaptive process through which problem-solutions are sought just is the creation and sustaining of intelligent democratic community.

Read these five articles on Obama:
Each one of these pieces - as well as many of Obama's most eloquent speeches - shows Obama the philosophical pragmatist at work: as a thinker, a problem-solver, a man with a complex understanding of his own diverse experience and competing values, and a commitment to genuine democratic discussion.

What does this mean for Obama the president? I'd like to hope that the office doesn't convert Obama into yet another pragmatist of the crass, non-philosophical version I mentioned above. I'm not worried about him being an ideologue. Despite the right's best efforts to paint him as such, there's little evidence that he's that sort of person. He's going to make a lot of people unhappy on both the left and the right when he doesn't follow the rules of prior ideological commitments. That unhappiness will unwittingly reflect something profoundly wrong with the older and hopefully dying form of polarized ideological politics in the US. But, unlike how many pundits put it, the problem is less "polarization" than it is the epistemological backwardness of ideology-driven politics.

But can Obama function as a genuine philosophical pragmatist? I think so. Given the serious nature of the problems he'll be dealing with as president - from the wars to climate change to poverty and economic collapse to education and healthcare - we really do need someone who's not blinkered by prior ideological commitments and hackneyed policy ideas and tools. We need a philosophical pragmatist with a rich understanding of the complex diversity of the US and the world, a morally reflective person who's willing to listen, to experiment, to involve and engage, and to lead when it is time to lead. Everything in his background says this is precisely who Obama is.

Vote Obama.


Anonymous said...

Spent the day working for the Obama campaign in Arlington VA, hanging flyers with the polling station addresses-- 101 addresses!--- and then phonebanking-- 80 + phone calls!-- en espanol. There were so many volunteers, the place was buzzing like a hive--- hardly any elbow room and way too many boxes of Dominoes Pizza. Not to mention the blue "Obama" cookies making the rounds. VOTE!!!!!!

troutsky said...

Even this ideological socialist was working for Obama yesterday (and again today, my wife makes me do it.)

The a priori condition no pragmatical thinking can negate is the objective balance of power and hegemonic control of the dominant narrative. Such anti-democratic forces eliminate true politics a priori and an Obama can only choose the degree to which he reinforces that narrative.

MT said...

Interesting. Now what kind of fruit is he?

Anonymous said...

Grew up in Hawai, lived in Asia, mother from Kansas/Seattle, father from Kenya -- must be a tropical blend: mangoes, pineapple, and banana with a passion fruit and blackberry sauce.

Whatever it is, apparently the fruit flies like it:

Demwit said...

I think Obama also has a highly ideological strain. This is why he refuses to admit that the Iraq war is now winnable and clings rigidly to a super-fast withdrawal timetable formulated two years ago, even though Petraeus warned him that over-rapid withdrawal would cause a power vacuum because the Iraqi military would not yet be able to stand by itself -- a power vacuum which would invite meddling by Iran and more civil war. If Obama were truly a pragmatist, he would honestly face the new reality in Iraq and work to solve the new problems that the fact that the war is winnable brings with it. Instead, he is in denial, protecting himself with a rigid ideological view of the war that is two years out of date. How can his denial of contemporary reality in Iraq be explained if he is a pragmatist?

Anonymous said...


Was it ideology that motivated him to forgo federal matching funds so that he could exceed the federal spending limits?

Was it ideology that motivated him to limit the number of debates with McCain to three?

These were shrewd political decisions that worked!

His focus will turn now to his re-election, which means the economy will need to recover within about 18 months or he will be imperil.

His approach to Iraq will not be constrained by the rhetoric of the campaign. It sounds like Gates may stay at Defense and Petraus will still be a central figure in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The pullout from Iraq will be much slower than what was promised in the campaign and it will mainly constitute a redeployment of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, which is even more unstable and intractable than Iraq. His challenge will be to assuage the anti-war supporters who will press him to honor his campaign promises, while maintaining stability in the region.

I hope that Helmut is right about Obama the Pragmatist, but if he is, his biggest challenge will be managing the expectations of the left as he develops and implements an eight year plan that will be economically less “progressive” (less investing on social programs, freer trade, and more tax incentives for companies) than the rhetoric of his campaign.

Anonymous said...

I hope that Obama will prove to be pragmatic in the
Peircean-Deweyan problem solving sense.

It seems to me that communities of scientific inquiry certainly can, and
no doubt sometimes do, act philosophically pragmatically; and, as a
corollary, I would think that any individual involved in inquiry within
a group that is itself motivated by the methodeutic and ethic of
pragmatism is /ipso facto/ acting philosophically pragmatically, at
least to some extent (self- and hetero-criticism would tend to reinforce
those pragmatic habits). Even an individual inquirer not directly
affiliated with a particular research group can so conduct his research
(consider, for prime example, Peirce himself) if he has the larger
"community of inquiry" in mind and draws from it.

So the question I'm really asking is: To what extent and in what ways
can *any* leader really act philosophically pragmatically? What would it
mean for an individual to act in that manner if it is indeed possible at
all in any significant sense which involves "a difference which makes a
difference"? Doesn't it require a pragmatically inclined culture from
the get go? Or can one act in ones role as leader to facilitate the
development of such philosophically pragmatic ethics and methods within
the community/society/nation/ is concerned with?

If this is possible, then what might the pragmatically inclined philosophical community contribute to that growth of pragmatic ethics and method--in a word, critical commonsense--in his/her own society?

MT said...

I see what you mean and share the dream, I think, but I'm not sure you've described somebody different except in degree from a pragmatist in "the crass political sense." I wish you had drawn and maintained distinctions between what a chief executive says, thinks, and administratively does. Male lions could be considered ideological and reactionary kings, yet in some sense the proto-pragmatist philosophers regarded this kind of rule--via Darwin's vision--as their paradigm. Having distributed, checked and balanced governance suggests to me that pragmatism describes how everything collective result results--whether or not it was firmly steered by agencies and committees and noises from the bully pulpit; and whether reflecting the will of the majority, according to pollsters, going in to it, coming out of it or among future historians looking back to it. What you call "crass" executive behavior seems like it might mean just being lazy or pragmatic about something else (re-election?) than the ostensible question at hand. So actually besides distinguishing saying, thinking and doing, there's the distinctions between thinking about now and the long term, the narrow context and the broad, etc.

I suppose you're using "pragmatism" almost as a metaphor in the context of a governor or a governing administration's style, and you've more or less fleshed out how you mean it to apply. But I don't know that I could take "pragmatism" with me and reconstruct it at home without instructions.

MT said...

I meant

"how every collective result results"