Monday, December 15, 2008

Pragmatism over Ideology

A reader on Daniel Larison's Conservative blog talks about Obama and Pragmatism. It's perhaps the most important outcome of the election.  Call it the "Best and the Brightest,"  "competence over ideology," regardless, it WILL be the central guiding idea of the next eight years.

I don’t think you’re giving full credit to pragmatism as one of several possible natural dispositions of human beings. It isn’t just some facade that some ideologues put on to try to pretend they aren’t ideologues, which of course does happen. It’s an actual approach to life that is a natural path for some of us.

Take the scientific method, for example. It’s not natural to everyone, but it certainly reflects a basic human approach based on objective evidence, facts, observation, and trial and error. Pragmatists are people who simply aren’t inclined towards ideology and dogma, or even if they are to some degree, feel that such things need to be tested by real experience and reformed accordingly. They think it is more natural to proceed in this rather scientific, pragmatic way than it is to try to impose an ideology on nature.

Obviously not everyone is pragmatic, many are quite opposed to it. Some are opposed, but recognize that in politics pragmatism is valued by many, so they put on a pragmatic facade, in order to promote their ideology. So there’s always a question about someone who puts themselves forward as a pragmatist, as to whether they really are, or are just pretending to be.

Assuming the debate over Obama has inspired these remarks, I think its worth mentioning that a large part of the election campaign was fought over just this issue. Obama presented himself as a genuinely pragmatic politician who was not primarly concerned with ideology, but with what would work, and that he could appeal across ideological divides to come to agreements on what worked that would be good for the country.

McCain and many conservatives were accusing Obama of presenting a false facade, that he was actually a socialist, a communist, a terrorist, a leftist ideologue who was hiding his real ideological extremism behind this fake veneer of pragmatism, and that once elected he would show his true colors, and try to turn the country into a muslim, socialist paradise for Bill Ayers and al Qaeda terrorists.

The electorate rejected McCain’s version of Obama, and accepted Obama’s own self-description. Those who are surprised by Obama’s appointments thus far are those who for some reason mistakenly believed in McCain’s criticism. One of the best examples of Obama’s pragmatism is his appointment of Chu as energy secretary. Imagine that, and actual expert scientist in charge of energy research and development! Rather than a politician or military official or a “green” progressive environmentalist, Obama picked a guy who actually knows science. Is this being “centrist”, or is it being pragmatic in the real sense of the word.

I think the truth that is coming out, and which you have avoided seeing as best you can, is that Obama really is, by nature, a pragmatist, in the most basic sense of the word, and that ideology is not what makes him tick. That doesn’t mean he has no ideological biases, but that the forms and changes his ideology based on actual observation, analysis, and testing of those ideas, in what is loosely a scientific matter, and not even a purely political form of pragmatism.