The emptiness of Obama's pragmatism

Policy devoid of clear ethical theory creates a nation without principle, and a nation without principle is a nation on stilts.

In President Obama's vision for Washington, "pragmatism" will reign, "ideology" will wane, and an era of civility, reason, and bipartisanship will emerge. An analysis of what pragmatism really means explains why Mr. Obama's plan has not (and cannot) work. It also reveals the emptiness of pragmatism as national principle.

Pragmatism refers to one philosophical movement and two political ideas.

Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey founded the philosophical movement in late 19th- and early 20th-century America. Philosophical pragmatists are anti-intellectual philosophers. They shiver at the thought of Descartes poking his fire, wondering if life is all a dream. They believe there are no answers to purely theoretical questions (such as whether we have free will), because there exists no pure realm of reason. There is only the external world where people flourish and suffer every day. As such, a philosophical or ethical theory's validity depends entirely upon its impact on human conduct and experience.

For James, things are "true" – and thus we ought to accept them and act upon them – insofar as they "work" for people, making their lives more satisfactory.

Through philosophical pragmatism, the ethical questions of politics became scientific questions. A lawmaker was to assess a policy's impact on the real world. While this seems straightforward now, it created a revolution in American politics and academia. Robert LaFollete, governor of Wisconsin from 1901-06, exemplified and in part initiated the movement. A Republican and later a Progressive, LaFollete enacted the "Wisconsin Idea," whereby he empowered the University of Wisconsin-Madison to examine legislative proposals technically and expertly. LaFollete practiced the first type of political pragmatism: Expert Rule (Pragmatism 1). It is no coincidence that the American Political Science Association was founded in 1903.

Obama embraces Pragmatism 1. He has commissioned various "czars," such as health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, to use their technical expertise to direct policy. And Obama advertises his own developed policies – from abortion to Afghanistan – as pragmatic, reasoned solutions. To be clear, a supporter of Pragmatism 1 needn't endorse philosophical pragmatism wholeheartedly.

People tend to associate Pragmatism 1 with reasonableness. Its opposite is ideology. Beholden dogmatically to a particular theory or worldview, ideological policymakers write legislation without assessing its impact on people's actual lives. On the right, one who believed sodomy should be illegal, in the name of Christianity, would be ideological. On the left, this characterization would apply to one who endorsed pacifism even during an enemy invasion.

 Pragmatism 2 is simpler. When dealing with contentious issues, policies engineered to receive bipartisan support exhibit Pragmatism 2. If Pragmatism 1 is pragmatic policy, Pragmatism 2 is pragmatic politics. It seeks bipartisanship out of concern for preventing legislative gridlock when action is required and creating national unity during a period of crisis, among other benefits.

Obama has governed so far as though Pragmatism 1 entails Pragmatism 2. He presumes that policies forged by reason, evidence, and "unbiased" expertise (Pragmatism 1) – those policies that "work" – will garner the support of all reasonable members of Congress and thus bridge partisan divides (Pragmatism 2). He bases his belief in the possibility of national and political consensus on this faulty argument.

Consensus has not emerged in Washington because disagreement exists over the definition of Pragmatism 1. What "works" for liberals doesn't work for conservatives. Did Reagan's policies "work"? Did Clinton's?

The most divisive public policy issues are not that way because liberals and conservatives solve math differently. Economists cannot specify the rights and duties of citizenship. The deeper partisan disagreements are ethical and philosophical. Liberals and conservatives have conflicting intuitions and moral arguments about how we ought to distribute the burdens and benefits of a free society.

Such fundamental disagreement helps explain why Chief Justice John Roberts's bid for more unanimous Supreme Court rulings has faltered. And it sheds light on the Republicans' vigorous opposition to Obama's pragmatic agenda, which they see as a liberal plan to radically reshape American society.

For Obama and other Democratic leaders to be the harbingers of a lasting American liberalism, they need to unite their pragmatism rhetoric with real moral argument about the meaning of rights, freedom, and equality. They need to prove that their understanding of what works is connected to what is right and just beyond mere assertion. The same applies to conservatives.

Both political perspectives require people to sacrifice personal interests, economic or otherwise, for the sake of other people's interests or rights. People assent to such obligations not because they "work" for their personal interests – or not only for that reason – but because they believe it's morally beneficial or required. The Reagan revolution was enduring because he grounded his program in principles that were independent from his specific policies, such that they could apply to changing conditions.

In order to engender a durable political movement, Obama ought to ground his policies in ethical theory that the people can endorse. This requires delving into that purely philosophical realm eschewed by Pierce, Dewey, and James. Our Founders did not fear such theorizing, and at this critical juncture in our history, it seems we must jump in once more. What is the purpose of government? What rights and obligations do citizens have, and why? How should we distribute society's resources, and why?

It cannot be too much to ask our leaders and parties to present and discuss coherent answers to these questions. Washington's priorities are backward: Many there can discuss the details of a specific environmental regulation, but very few can speak lucidly on the details of these foundational questions.

Through a straightforward moral discussion, partisans may come to understand that the other side has good intentions, but different intuitions or reasoned arguments. And this realization – more than any graph detailing the future benefits of X,Y, or Z policy – might lead to the more civil discussion that Obama aims to lead. At the very least, such discussion would enable us to shun the hopelessly partisan ideologues as irresponsible and unreasonable.

 Pragmatism, planning, and expertise are necessary. Abstract moral arguments alone won't lift America. Relying entirely on Pragmatism 1 to justify one's policies, however, is disingenuous and short-sighted. Policy devoid of clear ethical theory creates a nation without principle, and a nation without principle is a nation on stilts.


Jacob Bronsther, a former Fulbright Scholar and graduate student in political theory at Oxford University, is a law student at New York University.

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