The Magazine

Pragmatism Obama Style

Surprise, it's left-wing.

May 4, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 31 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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As candidate and as president, Barack Obama has presented himself as a postpartisan pragmatist. He has generally refrained from speaking in explicitly ideological terms, and earned a reputation as a silver-tongued orator. Yet on important issues he has seemed anything but pragmatic, adopting rigidly left-liberal or progressive views, suppressing salient consequences, and putting forward misleading or incomplete arguments disrespectful of the case on the other side. In fact, Obama is a pragmatist, but of a kind that is anything but postpartisan.

To be sure, distinguished scholarly authority has vouched for the postpartisanship of Obama's pragmatism. In January 2008, writing in the New Republic, Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein--a friend and former colleague of Obama's at the University of Chicago Law School, an informal adviser to Obama's presidential campaign, and now head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs--argued that Obama was a "visionary minimalist" who, though "willing to think big and to endorse significant departures from the status quo," would "prefer to do so after accommodating, learning from, and bringing on board a variety of different perspectives." Returning to the topic in the New Republic in September 2008, Sunstein emphasized that Obama "prefers solutions that can be accepted by people with a wide variety of theoretical inclinations"; his "skepticism about conventional ideological categories is principled, not strategic"; and his "form of pragmatism is heavily empirical; he wants to know what will work."

Sunstein's idealizing portrait, however, overlooks the influential refinements of pragmatism wrought at our universities over the last two decades.

As befits his successful journey through the academy--Columbia B.A., Harvard Law School J.D., senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School--Obama practices a pragmatism that reflects the 1990s revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century school of thought launched by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. In its original philosophical, or anti-philosophical, sense--as in its ordinary, everyday sense--pragmatism stands for flexibility in solving problems as opposed to insistence on solutions that conform to religious or metaphysical dogma or rigid moral and political agendas. At its most extreme, philosophical pragmatism denies the very existence of objective truth, arguing that opinions we declare true are merely those that have proved useful to one interest or another.

In the 1980s and 1990s, philosophy professor Richard Rorty--in scholarly papers, learned books, academic lectures, and generally accessible writings--infused pragmatism with a decidedly partisan meaning. Or perhaps, as Rorty suggested, he brought out the original pragmatism's latent partisanship. His synthesis proved popular in philosophy departments, among political theorists, and in law schools. While Obama may never have read a word Rorty wrote, the new pragmatism permeated the atmosphere of the university world Obama inhabited. It proclaimed that philosophical questions were subordinate to political questions, and that the proper political question in America is how to promote progressive ends.

In Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, originally delivered as the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University in 1997 and published the following year as a short book by Harvard University Press, Rorty stated his synthesis most succinctly. Proceeding from the dogma that "nobody knows what it would be like to try to be objective when attempting to decide what one's country really is, what its history really means," Rorty declared that there is no point in asking whether any particular account "got America right." Nevertheless, Rorty seemed to think he got right the nature of right and left in America. The right, he proclaims, is the party of the status quo, defined by the quest to preserve inherited privilege. In contrast, the left, or the left that takes its cue from Walt Whitman and John Dewey--"prophets," proclaims Rorty, of a "civic religion"--is the party of hope; it seeks to bring the reality of America into harmony with democracy's progressive promise.