Pragmatism to do WHAT?

I have long said that claiming to be “pragmatic,” as opposed to ideological, is a dodge. Someone who claims to do whatever “works” is begging the question of “works to do what?” The means still have to have an end. And the decision of what ends to pursue grows out of an explicit or implicit ideology. “Washington Post” reporter Alec MacGillis agrees with me, and so does the leftist political advisor Robert Reich, speaking of the president’s oft-cited pragmatism:

Last week, President Obama told Sen. Orrin Hatch, the veteran Utah Republican, that he would appoint a “pragmatist, not a radical,” to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

The assurance was hardly necessary. After all, everything Obama does is pragmatic. His adviser David Axelrod let it be known just after the election that Obama was a “pragmatist and a problem solver,” which was a good thing, because, as Axelrod had said shortly before the election, “people are in a pragmatic mood, not an ideological mood.” When Obama introduced his national security team, he declared that “they share my pragmatism about the use of power.” And as he recently told the New York Times, the same goes for his economic policy, where “what I’ve been constantly searching for is a ruthless pragmatism.”

Ruthless pragmatism! It sends shivers up the spine. But what does it mean, really, to have a “pragmatic” president?

Very different things in different arenas, it turns out. On some issues, such as tax policy, Obama’s invocation of pragmatism shrewdly frames an egalitarian agenda. On some social issues, such as stem cell research, pragmatism means settling on a middle course to avoid distracting battles on lesser priorities; and on thorny questions such as how to handle detained terrorism suspects, pragmatism means a search for expedient solutions that can seem at odds with the president’s principled rhetoric.

Since his start in the Illinois legislature, calling Obama pragmatic has been a handy way of capturing his conciliatory tone, his disavowal of shopworn solutions and his willingness to bargain with opponents. But the more he and his team use the term to describe his politics — the recent 100 days coverage was chock full of the P-word — the less useful it becomes, and the more it seems like a way to deflect questions about what he’s trying to accomplish. . . .

But pragmatism fails as a political definition, says Robert Reich, who served as President Clinton’s labor secretary, because it describes how a politician moves toward a goal, not the goal itself. “It’s possible to be ruthlessly pragmatic in terms of how you get to an objective,” Reich said, “but the phrase is nonsensical in terms of picking an objective.” . . .

“Most presidents who were change agents . . . described themselves as centrists but clearly had a collection of values about what was good and right,” Reich said. “The question becomes one of how much you reveal about where you want to lead people.”

So that presidents keep most of where they want to lead people hidden? This does not sound fitting for a self-governing people.

These points about pragmatism apply not just to governing but to churches, businesses, and individual decisions. The goal has to be considered. Actually, the goal is especially paramount in pragmatism because it is not so much a philosophy as a tactic: the ends justify the means.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Manxman

    One of the really nasty things about pragmatism is that pragmatic actions – cutting loose from absolutes and doing what “appears” to “work” – in achieving questionable goals, are almost always accompanied by harmful, unintended consequences that result from out and out sin or disobedience to principles God has set up in the world. Our “justice” system has been pragmatic for some time now, and has unleashed a flood of suffering on our nation. Again – God is not mocked.

  • Manxman

    One of the really nasty things about pragmatism is that pragmatic actions – cutting loose from absolutes and doing what “appears” to “work” – in achieving questionable goals, are almost always accompanied by harmful, unintended consequences that result from out and out sin or disobedience to principles God has set up in the world. Our “justice” system has been pragmatic for some time now, and has unleashed a flood of suffering on our nation. Again – God is not mocked.

  • fws

    “But pragmatism fails …because it describes how a politician moves toward a goal, not the goal itself.”

    Hammer. Meet nail.

    “So that presidents keep most of where they want to lead people hidden?”

    non sequitur. fox news talking point.

    “… because it is not so much a philosophy as a tactic: the ends justify the means.”

    Huh? i consider “pragmatic” to be a virtue. all virtue can be vice depending on context and degree yes?

    …Including “idealism” yes? as someone who desires to be pragmatic, it does not follow that I believe end justifies means, even noble ends. another nonsequitur.

  • fws

    “But pragmatism fails …because it describes how a politician moves toward a goal, not the goal itself.”

    Hammer. Meet nail.

    “So that presidents keep most of where they want to lead people hidden?”

    non sequitur. fox news talking point.

    “… because it is not so much a philosophy as a tactic: the ends justify the means.”

    Huh? i consider “pragmatic” to be a virtue. all virtue can be vice depending on context and degree yes?

    …Including “idealism” yes? as someone who desires to be pragmatic, it does not follow that I believe end justifies means, even noble ends. another nonsequitur.

  • Tim

    “Why” on earth is “Washington Post” in “quotes”?

  • Tim

    “Why” on earth is “Washington Post” in “quotes”?

  • Nemo

    Politically speaking, generally the idealist causes more damage than the pragmatist, for it is the idealist who wants to reshape the world, breaking free from the past and leading us into utopia. The far-seeing leader who will carry us into the future is a progressive concept—a form of idealism. In this context, it would be helpful to make the distinction between the true pragmatist and the idealist masquerading as a pragmatist—as you’re claiming Obama is.

    Although I must confess, I don’t care for the term “pragmatic” much either. If I remember correctly, it is a term that also came out of the progressive revolution. Prudence is the classical conservative virtue contrasted with the idealism classically typified by the French Revolution.

  • Nemo

    Politically speaking, generally the idealist causes more damage than the pragmatist, for it is the idealist who wants to reshape the world, breaking free from the past and leading us into utopia. The far-seeing leader who will carry us into the future is a progressive concept—a form of idealism. In this context, it would be helpful to make the distinction between the true pragmatist and the idealist masquerading as a pragmatist—as you’re claiming Obama is.

    Although I must confess, I don’t care for the term “pragmatic” much either. If I remember correctly, it is a term that also came out of the progressive revolution. Prudence is the classical conservative virtue contrasted with the idealism classically typified by the French Revolution.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    @3 Tim,

    It’s a title, and I didn’t want to dig out the code for italics.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    @3 Tim,

    It’s a title, and I didn’t want to dig out the code for italics.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Obama just about always manages to obfuscate his positions. Charles Ogletree, a law professor who knew him at Harvard, was amazed at his ability as editor of the Law Review to convince both legal liberals and conservatives that he was on their side. He actually never wrote an article for this journal, thus cleverly keeping his real views to himself.

    The truth has become clear that he is at root a man of the Left who tries to hide this with such rhetorical smoke as “pragmatism” and “empathy.” With Obama one must watch what he does and take his rhetoric with a grain of salt.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Obama just about always manages to obfuscate his positions. Charles Ogletree, a law professor who knew him at Harvard, was amazed at his ability as editor of the Law Review to convince both legal liberals and conservatives that he was on their side. He actually never wrote an article for this journal, thus cleverly keeping his real views to himself.

    The truth has become clear that he is at root a man of the Left who tries to hide this with such rhetorical smoke as “pragmatism” and “empathy.” With Obama one must watch what he does and take his rhetoric with a grain of salt.

  • Bruce

    Colin Powell famously refused, when considering a run for office, to commit to whether he was a democrat or a republican. His soaring early ’90′s popularity was going to inevitably fall once people sourced his stances on various things. Is this a new thing? There seems to be this “trust me” approach to governing that is referenced in the word “pragmatism”.

    Never mind though. Every president comes in with sharply defined ideals and watches them sandpapered away by special interests, the opposition of Congress and the courts, and the overall complexity of steering the ship of state. Obama’s particular approach was “pragmatism”, but over time, as the article points out, that word will either come to mean something much more specific, or come to mean nothing.

    Meanwhile, the phrase “ruthless pragmatism” does indeed shiver my timbers.

  • Bruce

    Colin Powell famously refused, when considering a run for office, to commit to whether he was a democrat or a republican. His soaring early ’90′s popularity was going to inevitably fall once people sourced his stances on various things. Is this a new thing? There seems to be this “trust me” approach to governing that is referenced in the word “pragmatism”.

    Never mind though. Every president comes in with sharply defined ideals and watches them sandpapered away by special interests, the opposition of Congress and the courts, and the overall complexity of steering the ship of state. Obama’s particular approach was “pragmatism”, but over time, as the article points out, that word will either come to mean something much more specific, or come to mean nothing.

    Meanwhile, the phrase “ruthless pragmatism” does indeed shiver my timbers.


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