The Pragmatist’s Ideology

The Obama Administration and its loyalists dismiss ideology as passé. They portray idealists – on both Left and Right –  as rigid partisans unmoored from political reality. This criticism is neatly-distilled in Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, where he says: “Values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question.”

The complement to this condemnation of ideology is the president’s embrace of “Pragmatism.” No political philosophy drives the pragmatist’s decisions, only dispassionate analysis of hard facts. So the pragmatists say.

But everyone is ideological, especially those who claim they aren’t. Pragmatism is itself an ideology, and the Obama Administration’s application of it has been exceptionally rigid.

An ideology is a unified political philosophy that establishes goals and selects methods to achieve them. In the case of socialism, for instance, one goal is to place industry under democratic control, and one method is to strengthen unions. The ideology of the Obama Administration is trickier to identify, not because it’s not there, but because it’s tacit and because its existence is repeatedly denied.

Since the goals are not openly acknowledged, let’s first examine the methods. After all, the means employed cannot be separated from the ends desired. In his largest presidential initiative, health care reform, Obama expanded the role of the health industry in exchange for modest government regulation. On other major issues, the approach has been similar. The automotive crisis and the financial crisis were both addressed through government subsidation to private industry (with the latter now being followed up by attempts at minor regulation), while the employment crisis has been addressed primarily by slashing taxes and providing incentives for job creation in the private sector.

These policies are touted as the result of open-minded political compromise, but that compromise is hammered out within a narrow ideological range. In each case, Left-inspired alternatives have either been ignored, abandoned or minimized. The Obama Administration did not consider a health system run by the government. It did not consider nationalization of GM or Goldman Sachs. And it has not considered large-scale direct job creation.

The methods employed are decidedly neoliberal. On each issue, Obama operates within the context of corporate control. He does act to restrain the excesses of unregulated markets, and in this sense he’s less radically neoliberal than President Bush II, but in no way does he challenge the basic distributions of power in America.

The same applies to foreign policy. In Afghanistan, withdrawal is not an option. In the West Bank, withdrawal is not an option. Toward Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela, reconciliation is not an option. Toward the environment, a massive emissions reduction is not an option. Those are merely the preferences of partisan idealists, who do not have to “face the world as it is.”

The pragmatist confines himself to the slim space between the corporate Democrats and the corporate Republicans, which, relative to the rest of the industrialized world, sits far to the Right. He is practical and he is even-handed – within existing structures. And while he hides his ideology, it can still be determined. Simply identify the options he entertains (‘realistic’) and contrast them with the options he discounts (‘unrealistic’).

6 Comments

  1. Clint, an excellent post! Make sure everyone reads it!

  2. Ian

    “Simply identify the options he entertains (’realistic’) and contrast them with the options he discounts (’unrealistic’).”

    This requires a deeper level of examination before you can come to any conclusions. You have to ask why he thinks things ‘realistic’ or ‘unrealistic’. What are the limitations he is considering, as a ‘pragmatist’, when he makes his decisions about what agenda to pursue?

  3. Chris

    The Obama campaign was incredible success because it deftly let each individual see what they wanted in Obama. He was the liberal answer to Reagan, the calm and collected technocrat, and the pragmatist willing to compromise with his opponents. But if you look behind the vague rhetoric he hardly promised more than he’s delivering.

    Leaving aside any ideological boxes you can draw around Obama, it’s disappointing to see Obama faithful embrace the “pragmatic” label as all-justifying excuse on behalf of Obama. Appeals to pragmatism should never override matters of strict morality. For example: torture, war, and privacy rights.

  4. Ian

    Chris, that was essentially what I posted yesterday in the “Republican Parallel Universe” thread. Obama promised change, and that was the primary message he sent out. He didn’t as loudly advertise what specific change he would bring as much as he just said he would bring change. The American people wanted (and probably still want) significant change of some sort, so they voted for him without examining it closely. He was clearly a better choice than McCain/Palin, but it is unfortunate that so many Americans seem surprised at/disappointed in how he is running things.

    “Appeals to pragmatism should never override matters of strict morality. For example: torture, war, and privacy rights.”

    I agree with you, but you know someone could easily turn that around and say that “strict morality” should be enforced via torture, war, and restriction of privacy rights. That was basically the Bush agenda.

  5. sam

    And how, exactly, is the sitting president of the united states supposed to be practical anywhere *outside* of the existing structures?

    I don’t think Obama disguises his values – ideology is a code-word for *extreme* values, which is in itself perhaps an unjustified pejorative term, but he’s not saying he doesn’t have values at all – just that they aren’t extreme, which is in this political context true. What he does say is that so-called “ideology” tends to distort fact-based reasoning, which (I’m sure you could agree) certainly happens. Now, this is a claim we can evaluate – it’s one thing to disagree with Obama’s values, it’s another to say he’s using false facts. Which are you saying?

  6. Clint

    Sam,

    “And how, exactly, is the sitting president of the united states supposed to be practical anywhere *outside* of the existing structures?”

    I think the 2008 election was a mandate for a major transformation in the U.S. political system. At that point we’d had a year of economic collapse, 7 years of quagmires, 8 years of neo-conservatism, 14 years of NAFTA, and 30+ years of neoliberal programs that have undercut the economic security of much of the population, while increasing inequality to record levels.

    I think policy options exist that would “challenge the basic distributions of power.” So, for instance, withdrawal from NAFTA/WTO ‘free trade’ agreements would be one option. Speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan/Iraq would be another, followed by reallocation of funds from war towards employment programs. The public option is yet another.

    Instead of pursuing these types of changes (which I think would better address the roots of the country’s problems), Obama has shown a firm commitment to the maintenance of the corporate state. He addresses issues overwhelmingly within the context of corporate management.

    “What he does say is that so-called “ideology” tends to distort fact-based reasoning”

    I agree that it can. However, I take issue with Obama’s attempts to:

    A) Characterize ideologically-based programs as irrational and impractical.
    B) Paint himself as someone who’s above ideology and who’s purely practical.

    “it’s one thing to disagree with Obama’s values, it’s another to say he’s using false facts. Which are you saying?”

    I disagree with his ideology.