Friday, August 19, 2011

David Bromwich on Obama's Pragmatism: Maxims That Ratify the Existing Order--Any Order

I'd like to return briefly this morning to the article by David Bromwich to which I linked yesterday, about how the Obama presidency is a continuation of the Bush one.  I see this morning that Bromwich's statement has made the round of progressive blog sites, and deservedly so: it's a sharp, pointed, necessary statement that I hope someone in the current administration will pay attention to.  Though I very much doubt anyone will, except to scorn Bromwich's critique . . . .

One of the valuable contributions of Bromwich's statement that I didn't highlight yesterday, but which deserves careful attention, is his scathing analysis of the principles-lite pragmatism by which Mr. Obama professes to lead "from behind."  As Bromwich notes, Obama imagines he's leading in the footsteps of Lincoln when he leads "from behind" and places pragmatic, bipartisan compromise ahead of fidelity to foundational ethical principles that form a necessary moral base for his political decison-making.  

The president also cites, Bromwich notes, the Niebuhr-lite Christian realism promoted by folks like David Brooks, who pay little or no attention to Niebuhr's careful critique of socioeconomic injustice as they zero in on his "realistic" rejection of the idealism of the social gospel and his doctrine of sin.  As I've noted in several previous postings (and here, here, here, here, and here), anyone who has actually read Niebuhr with care knows that Brooks' appropriation (and the appropriation of other neo-con interpreters of Niebuhr) is a gross mischaracterization, a bowdlerization, of his theology of Christian realism. 

Here's Bromwich's conclusion about Obama's Niebuhr-and-Lincoln-embellished philosophy of leading "from behind" and playing the "long game," and the pragmatist philosophical framework to which this philosophy appeals:

This has become the ethic of the Bush-Obama administration in a new phase.  It explains, as nothing else does, Obama’s enormous appetite for compromise, the growing conventionality of his choices of policy and person, and the legitimacy he has conferred on many radical innovations of the early Bush years by assenting to their logic and often widening their scope. They are, after all, the world as it is. 

Obama’s pragmatism comes down to a series of maxims that can be relied on to ratify the existing order -- any order, however recent its advent and however repulsive its effects. You must stay in power in order to go on “seeking.” Therefore, in “the world as it is,” you must requite evil with lesser evil. You do so to prevent your replacement by fanatics: people, for example, like those who invented the means you began by deploring but ended up adopting. Their difference from you is that they lack the vision of the seeker. Finally, in the world as it is, to retain your hold on power you must keep in place the sort of people who are normally found in places of power.

Obama’s pragmatism comes down to a series of maxims that can be relied on to ratify the existing order -- any order, however recent its advent and however repulsive its effects.  This is what I've been saying, over and over again on this blog, in response to those who praise the president for being a pragmatist (a Chicago pragmatist, in particular), someone playing the long game, someone who leads from behind, a Christian realist: pragmatism of the variety espoused by this president ultimately blesses the status quo.

Any status quo.  Whatever status quo happens to hold the reins of power at any given moment.  Just as centrist pragmatism of the same ilk among leading Catholic American intellectuals (see the article to which I've just linked) ultimately and always sides with the bishops and power-mongers of the church, even as it purports to stand aloof from the fray and offer dispassionate objective critique of both sides of debates, in an "on the one hand, but on the other hand" way . . . .

Ultimately, and always, it blesses the status quo as imagined and maintained by the rich and powerful.  It's willing to listen to alternative viewpoints and to entertain other ways of imagining the world only if and when--miracle of miracles--those viewpoints and imaginings gain any traction at all in the highly controlled and carefully managed world of the rich and powerful.

It's not that Mr. Obama and other centrists stand nowhere, with their principles-lite pragmatism.  It's that they stand, predictably, on the side of wealth and power.  The "realistic" worldview they want to reinforce is, first and foremost, the worldview of their economic masters, of the wealthy elite who control the discourse of our political and economic life today.   

After George W. Bush and his disastrous legacy, which was the culmination of three decades of destructive neo-conservative dominance of American political life, many of us felt in our bones that American democracy could not survive, unless some radically different ways of thinking and talking about our national political and economic life could be brought into the normative conversations making our future.  The tremendous irony--and Niebuhrian tragedy--of this presidency is that the man we thought we were electing to re-open that necessary national conversation has, quite precisely, continued the foreclosing of the conversation effected by the previous president which is leading quickly to the demise of our democratic society.

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