Thursday, September 08, 2011

Repost: The Ideologues and the Philosophical Pragmatist

After tonight's speech by President Obama, I'd like to repost something from November 3, 2008, the eve of his election as President of the United States:

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 ispartially 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.


Fan of the Phron said...

I say he'll win. But mostly because the candidates on the other side can't take the broad middle. I suspect Ron Paul will siphon off a fair number of votes from the Reublican nominee. Keep your seatbelt fastened.

troutsky said...

Certainly the dream of the post-ideological, well administered technocratic society is a seductive one. But it too is an ideology.

The real question is to what degree the status quo, the phantasm of "liberal democratic capitalism", is acceptable to you.

helmut said...

That's a pretty big leap to technocratic society. Nothing in this post says that. And nothing in this post necessarily entails that. As such, it doesn't look much like an ideology. The concept of rationality - in the technocratic economic sense of acting such one maximizes one's preferences - which is an unfortunately narrow conception is not mentioned in this post at all. I say "intelligence." Not that overly loaded term, "rationality."

I'm not a fan of the premises or practices of raw capitalism. But insisting that everything reduces to the contradictions of capitalism is ideological not in the sense of false consciousness necessarily, but in the sense of thinking that one political-economic-philosophical model explains all. An experimentalist doesn't find that to be possible except perhaps in the case of individuals or groups whose description of reality is made to fit an a priori ideological framework. That, I think, is a problem on the left, the right, and pretty much anywhere one might locate oneself on the political spectrum.

troutsky said...

Just saying. Pragmaticos - relating to facts. Well, facts are simple, politics are not. If not rationality as such,you are advocating judging policy in terms of the success of their practical application and I am arguing "success" is in the eye of the beholder.

This is my argument for demos and if I always mention capitalism in this context ( forget "raw" or "predatory" or "late") it is because the economic part of political economy is so often left out.

Anti-capitalism is not itself a political economic philosophy but you are correct it is an ideological framework, arrived at through experimentation.

I just thought you sounded a little like Henry Higgins wondering why a woman couldn't be more like a man. She can't and she shouldn't.