Pragmatism They Can Believe In?

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Chris Hayes critiques the Obama-as-pragmatist meme from the left ...

The chief failure of Bushism, according to Sunstein, is not its content but its form. Not the substance of ideology but the fact that he was too wedded to it, too rigid and dogmatic. It's a view widely held in Washington. Many, like Sunstein, have drawn a lesson from the past eight years that is not about the failure of conservatism - neo or otherwise - or the dangers of the particularly toxic ideological disposition of the Bush administration ... No, through a kind of collective category error, they have alighted on a far more general moral to the story: ideology, in any form, is dangerous. "Obama's victory does not signal a shift in ideology in this country," wrote Roger Simon in Politico. "It signals that the American public has grown weary of ideologies." No less an ideologue than Pat Buchanan has come to this same understanding. "If there is a one root cause of the Bush failures," he wrote, "it has been his fatal embrace of ideology."

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 also holds out hope for it:

Obama could do worse than look to John Dewey, another onetime resident of Hyde Park and the founder of the University of Chicago Laboratory School, which Obama's daughters attend. Dewey developed the work of earlier pragmatists in a particularly fruitful and apposite manner. For him, the crux of pragmatism, and indeed democracy, was a rejection of the knowability of foreordained truths in favor "variability, initiative, innovation, departure from routine, experimentation."

Dewey's pragmatism was reformist, not radical ... Nonetheless, pragmatism requires an openness to the possibility of radical solutions ... 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.

And the experimentation will start, of course, with bold, persistent attempts to pour massive amounts of taxpayer money into failing industries, while demanding that said industries begin investing in even-less-profitable ventures than the ones they're currently engaged in! Hurrah! Next up: The Blue Eagle makes a comeback ...

Sorry, sorry. All snark aside, Chris's "optimistic" scenario strikes me as reasonably plausible: After all, a regnant ideological liberalism that cloaks its ideological assumptions in the insistence that it's really pragmatic, results-oriented, and anti-ideological was the default setting for American politics for an awfully long time, and indeed remained the default setting for the political establishment on a great many questions even during the post-Reagan conservative ascendancy. It's pretty easy to imagine the country settling back into a groove that it never completely left.

The big question for progressives, I tend to think, isn't whether Barack Obama ends up draping the language of non-ideological "experimentation" around a succession of proposals that would shift American policy distinctly leftward and make John Dewey smile: He's already done that. It's whether the policy shifts he embraces will go far enough to reconcile progressives to the fact that a "non-ideological" liberalism, in our era as in the earlier liberal ascendancy, requires an ideological Left as its foil. In practice, this means that Obama will probably often end up defining himself against progressivism, rhetorically, even when he's embracing progressive ideas. (See his campaign's extremely effective health-care ads for an example of how this works in practice.) The President-elect's ability to hold his coalition together, then, may depend in no small part on whether the Democratic Party's left wing feels that it's getting enough out of his Presidency in practice to justify playing the bad guy in the narrative Obama will be selling to the country as a whole, in which post-partisan "whatever works" pragmatism triumphs over ideologues of the left and right alike.

Update: Reihan weighs in here.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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