Tuesday, February 10, 2009

American Pragmatism's Return

Huffington Post - Jeffrey Feldman


It's not about Republican or Democratic philosophy of governance. It is not about spending in the red states or the blue states. It is not about who is right and who was wrong.

It is about finding what works for all Americans, in all the United States. Until the politicians understand the power of this pragmatism, the same pragmatism that transformed Deng's China into the world's third largest economy in forty years, the same pragmatism that led Ghandi's India out of colonial bondage to independence, politicians of every strip and color will become the roadkill trampled under the feet of pragmatic grass root activism that is the hall mark of American greatness. The People has returned to the government.


More than policy details, President Obama's first press conference showcased an aspect of America that 8 years of Bush-era pessimism worked hard to destroy: American pragmatism.

What is American pragmatism? It is a political philosophy rooted in the twin principles of action and usefulness. "If we take this action, will it be more useful than that action?" That is the basic question of American pragmatism.

The great American pragmatists, of course, are names that we once held up in this country with great pride, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Abraham Lincoln.

Listening to Obama's press conference, it was strikingly clear that he was speaking in the voice of American pragmatism.

The purpose of government in the eyes of American pragmatism is to solve problems by asking what actions will be most useful. To bicker endlessly over the belief in government is to waste a profound amount of energy and time. If a series of actions intended to be useful do not all turn out to be so, then ask the question again: which actions have been useful?

What we are faced with as a nation is something far more corrosive than an 8-year emphasis on tax cuts or a willingness to give away unregulated public resources to Wall Street. The real problem posed by Bush-era republicanism is that each time the government takes action to improve the life of citizens, the Republican leadership insists on hamstringing the conversation with useless questions about belief in government, rather than focusing on pragmatics.

But what if that changes? What if each time a series of programs are put forward we return to them in six months and ask which actions have been most useful instead of throwing up our arms and debating our theory or belief in government? That change is precisely what Obama intends when he talks of 'change.'

For Obama, the Republicans are not trying to debate the economy so much as they are trying to push philosophical word play about the role of government. And so long as they push that useless debate, the American people will not benefit.

And this brings us to the big story that lies behind American pragmatism: the believe in a larger purpose of American life.

And this, too, was Obama basic pragmatist message in his press conference--and in his inauguration address and campaign stump speech before it. The policies of the past have not been useful to us as the Republicans said they would be. And so, rather than wasting more time with more debate about what is and what is not the right truth to hold about the place of government in our lives, we will simply try different actions that have a better chance at being useful to the greatest number of Americans.

To be deemed 'useful,' the actions of our government must do more than align themselves with a belief. They must demonstrate improvement in the lives of people. And by 'improvement' we mean: the opportunities of individuals must not be less and the conditions of individuals must not be worse than those of their parents. The chance--the possibility of a healthy and secure life must must be equal to or greater than what came before.

The foundation of useful economic policy, in other words, is not that it serves the belief that a market is 'free' if government keeps its hands out of the business of regulation, but whether or not the actions in that policy have resulted in an individual reclaiming up the tools of work. If the actions in the recovery act put people back to work, then it will have been useful.

In this note, Obama and Biden alike have emphasized that pragmatic leadership begins with a very different opening premise than the ideological word play of the Bush-era. Whereas Bush told us that the priority was the ideology, and then defended that ideology at all cost, Obama is telling us that the priority is usefulness and so we must expect constant re-evaluation and fine-tuning as we go forward.

In a pragmatic form of leadership, the executive never stops asking: "Has this action been useful?" Actions that have not been useful are revised or discarded, actions that have been useful are amplified and applied more broadly.

What a different country it will be, if Obama's emphasis on American pragmatism goes forward. It will be a country of achievement, instead of ideological positioning.

In the meantime, individual Americans and the media must step up and do their part to reclaim the spirit of pragmatism maligned so relentlessly by two terms of George W. Bush as president. In a country where pragmatism is attacked in the name of ideology, little if anything gets done. Elected officials stuck in the Bush-era will remain forever spectators rather than actors. But in a country rallied again to pragmatism, our leaders become the driving agents of useful action.

We have waited long and hard for pragmatism to return. Now that it is here again, Americans everywhere should reclaim it with pride.

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