Wednesday, December 8, 2010

More on the False Pragmatist vs. Idealist Meme about Obama's Tax-Cut Deal

As I noted yesterday in commentary on the president's tax-cut deal, the meme of centrist political commentators who persistently echo the echo chamber of the beltway media is that we're now seeing the pragmatist Obama emerge, and those who expected this president to govern according to ideals are hopelessly naive, and know nothing about how politics works in the real world.  The president actually said as much to his base yesterday in the news conference about which I posted in my final posting yesterday.

This analysis sets up a false dichotomy between pragmatism and idealism which is really all about putting a screen around the real principles according to which the current president makes his decisions.  From my reading of John Dewey and other American pragmatist thinkers--reading I did as a backdrop to my study of a social gospel theologian in my doctoral dissertation work--I know at least a little bit about the pragmatist tradition.  And what I know leads me to conclude quite decisively that the pragmatism-idealism meme so beloved of centrists and the beltway media--as they beat up on anyone to the left of center--is deliberately misleading.

Pragmatism isn't about making the best decision possible as one passively waits for any and all decisions to come along.  It's about fighting for one's ideals as long and as hard as possible, and when one has done all one can to attain those ideals, then making realistic pragmatic decisions about how to move towards those ideals in a world that never perfectly mirrors the ideal.

What we've seen with this president from the time he took office has been an altogether different kind of pragmatism--one that's not really pragmatist at all, but is essentially neo-conservative in style and flavor.  Rather than enunciating some clear principles according to which he intended to govern, and setting goals (i.e., ideals) in line with those principles, from the outset of his presidency, Mr. Obama has told us repeatedly that we need to concede core Democratic principles to the Republican party, to seek a fatuous and totally idealistic bipartisan consensus, and to stop expecting political decisions to mirror core principles of his own party and of its base.

The pragmatist model according to which this president governs is principle-lite.  It is also solidly neo-conservative behind the shifting screen of elusive lite principles by which the president claims to be making his political decisions.  This is not a pragmatist model grounded in the philosophy of classic American pragmatist thinkers like Dewey, who developed their systems of pragmatism to explain how social groups like nations can realistically pursue ideals like participatory democracy, while pursuing those ideals in a real world that never adequately attains the ideal.  

With its fast and free, loose way with core principles of his own party--e.g., the need to make political and economic decisions with those at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid in mind first and foremost--Obama's pragmatism is a mask for the real principles according to which he governs.  These are neo-conservative principles that reward the rich with the expectation that rewarding the rich (Wall Street, bankers, the top 2% of the economic bracket) will then turn around and pour capital into the economic engine of our society and spread wealth around.

Increasing numbers of Americans are seeing that this neo-conservative economic myth is absolutely false.  And so a large percentage of American citizens were resolutely opposed to the continuation of tax cuts for the very rich.  That makes the attempt of the White House to convince us that it cut its deal on tax cuts as a response to widespread support for a continuation of the Bush program not merely false, but obscene.   

Once again, we're being asked to swallow a script generated by this administration, which informs us that progressives ought not to demand principled action on the part of the president, since that demand is rooted in hopeless, naive idealism.  And we're being implicitly told that the administration will cut deals whenever necessary--regardless of the core principles at stake--if its cold-hearted political calculus tells us that the populace wants such a deal, and that making a deal will score political points for the administration.  

Finally, this administration continues to say, loudly and clearly, to its own base that if those of us who voted Democratic in the last election don't like what we're getting, we might as well lump it.  The people who really count are the minority of wealthy neo-conservative interest groups who set the political and economic agenda for the nation.

No comments: