“Obama’s Pragmatism (or Move over Culture Wars, Hello Political Philosophy)”
[This piece was originally posted on December 14, 2008. It also appeared in Talking Points Memo on December 17, 2008. I am reposting it now because of continuing interest. You can find the original with comments by selecting "December" from the calendar at right.]
Here is a prediction: the culture wars will be left by the wayside as we enter a seemingly new land, the land of the tactically minded chief executive, whose tactics are the tip of a philosophical iceberg. The executive is Obama and the iceberg is Pragmatism.
Comments regarding Obama’s pragmatism constitute something of a cottage industry. These discussions usually involve contrasting Obama’s pragmatism, for example, in choosing his cabinet, with the ideological approach of Bush and the neo-cons. Here the term pragmatism is meant to denote political flexibility, comfort with the expedient, and a willingness to compromise. For critics it is meant to suggest an unprincipled orientation toward questions of great moment. Given Obama’s willingness to label himself a pragmatist, many have been mystified by his commitment to specific values, finding him not only unclassifiable in accepted political categories, but mystifying as a person. For example, in a recent article in Harpers, “The American Void,” Simon Critchley treats Obama as, well, a void. He just can’t figure the guy out. In fact, as I have noted elsewhere (PBS site), there is nothing strange about Obama’s political views for those who are familiar with the American philosophical tradition of Pragmatism or the Social Gospel Movement. Interestingly, Critchley makes much of Obama’s mother being an anthropologist, but what he fails to mention is that Ann Dunham’s thesis director was Alice G. Dewey, John Dewey’s granddaughter. (John Dewey was perhaps the most famous Pragmatist of the twentieth century.) This is no accident. Obama’s thought and practice can be located in the tradition of American Pragmatism (pragmatism with a capital P) and in the liberal Social Gospel Movement that was influential in Chicago during the early part of the 20th century. The latter is still influential in some Chicago churches and community groups, especially those that would have most engaged Obama’s attention as a community organizer.
One of the few commentators who has begun to tease out the differences between Obama’s pragmatisms is Chris Hayes. He writes in The Nation, “Pragmatism in common usage may mean simply a practical approach to problems and affairs. But it’s also the name of the uniquely American school of philosophy whose doctrine is that truth is pre-eminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief. What unites the two senses of the word is a shared skepticism toward certainties derived from abstractions–one that is welcome and bracing after eight years of a failed, faith-based presidency. . . . And if there’s a silver thread woven into the pragmatist mantle Obama claims, it has its origins in this school of thought. Obama could do worse than to look to John Dewey….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.’ ” The Nation, Dec 10, 2008
Hayes is moving in the right direction. I would take his claims a step further. There is no understanding of Obama without an understanding of Pragmatism. Take for instance the question of whether one can have principles and still be a pragmatist. From the vantage point of philosophical Pragmatism, the question is non-starter. The use of principles to address philosophical and political issues extends back to Plato and Aristotle, and migrates through Kant’s deontological ethics into the twentieth century. But the Pragmatist wants to bypass this mode of thinking, one that requires us to believe that affirming values requires a principled affirmation of values. Principles are in fact problematic and counterproductive. Dewey, for example, railed against Kant during WWI, claiming that the rigidity of his ethics of principled imperatives was reflected in the dictatorial and undemocratic mindset of the German regime. People who believe in democracy should be suspicious of permanent truths and principles. As Hannah Arendt argues, debate is at the heart of political life, and Truth (with a capital “T”) kills debate. (Obama’s father was a man of principle to the point of stubbornness. He had a failed career and a led a troubled life. It is hard to read Dreams of My Father and not conclude that Obama came away from his “journey” with a lasting distaste for principles. His mother, on the other hand, was the epitome of a Deweyan in her love of experience, experimentation, novelty, change, and belief in the transformational power of education.)
In the “Epilogue” to Dreams of My Father, Obama reports a conversation that he and his sister, Auma, had with Dr. Rukia Odero, a professor of history. A central question in the discussion: how should Africans adapt to the values that Westerners have brought to Africa? That Obama chose to report the conversation is telling. Rukia, I would argue, is meant to give voice to Obama’s views. She states, “I suspect that we can’t pretend that the contradictions of our situation don’t exist. All we can do is choose.” And after discussing the complexities of the issue of female circumcision, she goes on to say, “You cannot have rule of law and then exempt certain members of your clan. What to do? Again you choose. If you make the wrong choice, then you learn from your mistakes. You see what works.” (Dreams from My Father, New York: Crown, 2004, p. 434) “Seeing what works” is indeed the mantra of Pragmatism. Yet as in existentialism, this doesn’t mean that one doesn’t feel the weight of moral and political decisions. It means that one can’t appeal to principles in advance to justify one’s decisions or “what works.”
But doesn’t being a pragmatist, in both senses of the term, just make Obama a relativist? No doubt for the ideologically committed, those who fear a leader without a moral compass, this would be a central concern. But once again this is to frame the issue in the wrong fashion. Relativism is a problem for moral absolutists. Without a lasting commitment to absolutes, there isn’t a problem of relativism. Instead there is the problem of deciding what values to hold. To frame the discussion in terms of absolutism versus relativism is already to accept the framework of the religious right, which is what the Republicans have been notoriously successful in doing for two generations. However, the choice is not between absolutism and relativism. It is between different values. Commitments to values arise from numerous sources, including thoughtful deliberation and prudential considerations. And it is in the realm of “prudence” that one finds a symmetry between upper and lower case pragmatism. For the Pragmatist prudential considerations do not always trump other values, but sometimes they do, because prudence or tactical maneuvering may be required to realize successfully a greater good. As a matter of fact, a thoughtful political agent doesn’t make dogmatic, read absolutistic, decisions in advance regarding what values and tactics may be the most vital and relevant.
The culture wars have depended on disagreements over specific values and the belief that principles are central to morality. Or at least this is the way that the religious right has sought to frame the controversy, a perception that neo-cons have used to reinforce their political agendas. When Obama speaks of being post-ideological, of being a pragmatist, I read him as trying to address logjams over values by avoiding divisive discourses based on principles. How does one accomplish this? Well, one way is to sound as if one is not ideological, for example, by showing flexibility on specific moral and political questions. By so doing Obama is not simply maneuvering. He is not being disingenuous. He is behaving as if he is a committed Pragmatist, and as such he is seeking to change the ground rules for political discourse.
Obama may very well succeed with a little help from his (several million) friends, and realities on the ground, namely, a serious financial crisis that suddenly has life-long, dogmatic free-marketers running for cover. He may also succeed because he is attuned to something very basic about the American psyche. It is no accident that Pragmatism is the most significant philosophy that America has produced. There is something deeply American about it. But is it Left, Right, or Center? Once again, this is to ask a misleading question. Its tent is large enough to contain persons from across the American political spectrum, if one judges political commitments by specific values. Yet in an American context Obama’s Pragmatism presents a much greater challenge to the ideological Right than to the ideological Left. How so? If the conversation is shifted away from absolutes, the Right in America will lose the ground from which it has hurled its most potent missiles. Some on the Right are beginning to recognize the threat that Obama poses. Some still believe that they can bring back the days of the culture wars. The latter, however, are predicated on the “principled versus pragmatist” distinction, one that is becoming less consequential with each passing day. So, I wish the dogmatic Right lots of luck. They will need it. As for the non-dogmatic Right, if debate is crucial to a thriving democracy, I wish them well, and so does the Pragmatist Obama.
Obama on pragmatism (with a small p) and the dangers of certainty (which relates to philosophical Pragmatism).
UPDATE, January 5, 2010: I discovered through a reader’s comment that this video is no longer available. I don’t know when it was made unavailable or why its presence on YouTube constitutes a use violation. I assume that NBC must have pulled it. It was a nice clip because it showed the kind of fallibilist sensibility that one finds in Pragmatism.