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On Barack Obama’s “Pragmatism”

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Obama’s pragmatism. Read his previous OUPblogs here.

What is a pragmatist? Someone who is unmoved by cookie-cutter ideological commitments and is flexible with the means to achieve certain ends. S/he can be contrasted to the ideologue, who is steadfast in his/her commitment to certain fundamental values and their policy instantiations.

Well, we are almost all pragmatists then. Even George Bush and Ted Kennedy have been known to compromise on education and immigration policy. To use “pragmatic” as an explanatory label is entirely unhelpful and quite misleading, because it implies that if only other people weren’t crazy ideologues, Washington would be in agreement all the time.

It’s not just the fundamentalists that are an obstacle to political consensus. “Pragmatic” people disagree on means and ends all the time, because everyone has his or her own vantage point and interests or constituents to protect and there is no built-in incentive for anyone in Washington (except the president, who is the only official elected to serve a national constituency) to appreciate the electoral imperatives of someone else. Our constitution was written as a Newtonian system in which every elected official has been incentivized to care only about his/her institutional and electoral priorities such that governmental solutions emerge via the invisible hand of political contestation and negotiation. The winning politician isn’t just a pragmatist; s/he must understand and deal in the coinage of his/her opponents’ and collaborators’ self interest.

Calling President-elect Barack Obama a pragmatist relegates (at least some of) his political interlocutors to hard-headed fanatics. It underestimates the political challenge all presidents must undertake to bring together a nation of self-serving political strangers. It isn’t irrational knavery that prevents consensus in Washington. In fact the reverse is exactly true: everyone is looking out for his/her state, his/her district, his/her department, and for good reason, because their job depends on it. American politics is a frustratingly complex web of good intentions projected toward different and often contested ends.

So let us stop saying Obama is pragmatic. It tells us nothing that he is or is not, and it obfuscates the reality that even if he was not committed to any preexisting values, he still might not have his way with those that disagree with each other. Few people are really ideological in politics (they are the talk-show hosts), but everyone is self-interested. The self-proclaimed pragmatist seeks to confuse the two, and to accuse those as self-interested as s/he is as fanatical ideologues in order to de-legitimize their points of view. If politics were so easy our national anthem would be the Kumbaya.

Centrist,” “bi-partisan,” “post-partisan,” “independent,” belong in the same family of unhelpful words as “pragmatic.” What does it mean to stand in the center – not have any beliefs? Presumably a bipartisan poltician believes in life and choice. Post-partisanship seems to imply that our disagreements are trivial and we should just get over them as quickly as we can coin a new word. And what is it to be independent? It is nearly impossible to expect any politician to be free from his or her instinct to do whatever it takes to get (re)elected. Now that’s pragmatism, but it is exactly the kind of pragmatism that ensures dissensus and havoc in Washington, not the misconstrued pragmatism Obama’s panglossian supporters believe he can change the world with.