Pragmatism v. Ideology: International Relations

I’ve been meaning to write a post about process versus ideology in response to the hand-wringing about Obama’s appointees. This post from Glenn Greenwald and this one from Daniel De Groot have pitched the issue in different terms, as pragmatism versus ideology. Both are fairly abstract posts, and both are, in my opinion, bad caricatures of the debate.

Here’s Glenn, equating principle with ideology (and therefore presumably suggesting pragmatism lacks all principle).

Because as a matter of principle — of ideology — we believe that it is not just to do it, no matter how many benefits we might reap, no matter how much it might advance our "national self-interest" (just as we don’t break into our neighbor’s home and steal from them even if they have really valuable things to take and we’re pretty sure we won’t get caught).

And here he is suggesting that pragmatic calculations would primarily involve a measurement of material gain balanced against cost (this seems to contradict the suggestion that pragmatists have no principles, since the valuation of material gain is itself a principle, albeit not a very laudable one).

First, is foreign policy really nothing more than "pragmatic actions in defense of national self-interest?"  If, on a pragmatic level, the consequences of attacking Iraq had been different than what they were — if we had been able to invade and occupy relatively quickly and derive substantial material gain from doing so, including somehow making ourselves marginally "safer" — would that have made the Iraq War a just and desirable action? 

Daniel picks up on Glenn’s post, synthesizing that pragmatism equals realpolitik (apparently conflating Kissinger’s ideological approach to diplomacy with Obama’s pragmatism).

His point here is a great one, that "pragmatism" as applied to foreign policy is little more than another term for realpolitik, the amoral pursuit of national power in a competitive and adversarial nation-state environment.   

De Groot then asks–but doesn’t answer–what the goals of pragmatism are.

There is another fundamental problem with the ideology of pragmatism (yes, "I hate ideology" is an ideology too!) – that can be expressed as a question:  What goals do these pragmatic policies advance?

And all of this discussion and all of their weird conflations are divorced from any consideration of actual foreign policy ideologies in this country and from Obama’s own statements.

Consider these excerpts from Obama’s 2002 speech opposing the Iraq War.

What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income – to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

Now let me be clear – I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity.

He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.

I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.

So for those of us who seek a more just and secure world for our children, let us send a clear message to the president today. You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s finish the fight with Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, through effective, coordinated intelligence, and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism, and a homeland security program that involves more than color-coded warnings.

You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure that the UN inspectors can do their work, and that we vigorously enforce a non-proliferation treaty, and that former enemies and current allies like Russia safeguard and ultimately eliminate their stores of nuclear material, and that nations like Pakistan and India never use the terrible weapons already in their possession, and that the arms merchants in our own country stop feeding the countless wars that rage across the globe.

You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.

You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to wean ourselves off Middle East oil, through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil.

Those are the battles that we need to fight. Those are the battles that we willingly join. The battles against ignorance and intolerance. Corruption and greed. Poverty and despair.

Note, first, that Obama definitely sees his perspective as a fight against ideology–but more importantly, an ideology forced on the country with no consideration in terms of "lives lost [or] hardships borne." That, in itself, is an utterly pragmatic critique: we should not execute ideological solutions without first measuring their cost, something ideologically-based decisions don’t necessarily do. Obama then does that calculation: He argues that Saddam is no immediate threat and could be contained by the international community until he falls from power. And he measures that against an "occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." Glenn’s right–Obama’s stance against the war was one of calculation. But whereas Glenn imagined that calculation in terms of material gain, Obama’s calculation involved a measure of efficacy: given the certainty with which containment would work against Saddam, as compared to uncertainty, the painful human costs of war, and the inevitable blowback from it, war was clearly the worse alternative. 

Now turn to Obama’s second critique of the ideologies that favored war, an aspect of ideology that Glenn and Daniel ignore: ideology was used "to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income." This is the ugly flip-side to the notion that (as Daniel describes) "Ideology entails both a specific solution to a specific problem, but also a general approach to larger challenges." Ideology not only defines means to solutions, but it also defines what the problems are, and in so doing produces a narrative that focuses on some problems while ignoring others. It’s important to acknowledge this point, because most dominant foreign policy ideologies start from the assumption that oil equals power and that US hegemony is the goal, which leads logically to certain conclusions, including war with Iraq. (This is one of the problems underlying this discussion: while the progressives Glenn aligns with consistently support certain kinds of decisions, their views don’t amount to a formal foreign policy ideology, which is why many national figures who opposed the war are pragmatists. We may be seeing the formulation of an alternative to US hegemony based on sustainability and solutions to climate change, but thus far there isn’t the infrastructure for those ideas to amount to a formal ideology.)

That said, one could argue that Obama isn’t so free from ideology himself. Here’s the answer he gives to Daniel’s question about his goals: he seeks "a more just and secure world for our children." At least in his own mind, Obama weighed his choices not against the materialist measure Glenn suggests a pragmatist would be guided by, but justice and security. Obama even names four policies that would support this principle:

  • Finish the fight with Bin Laden and al-Qaeda
  • Vigorously enforce a non-proliferation treaty
  • Make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people
  • Wean ourselves off Middle East oil

Gosh. That’s about as far from Kissinger’s realpolitik as you get. It’s also, with the call to wean ourselves off Middle Eastern oil, far outside the existing dominant ideologies inside the DC beltway. And note, with his comment that neocon ideology serves to distract us from problems at home, Obama also implicitly ties what we do in the Middle East to economic justice within the US. Call that ideology or call it a pragmatic focus on governing as a whole, but by yoking domestic conditions to foreign policy, Obama’s getting beyond the pigeonholes of both good and bad foreign policy ideology as it currently exists in DC.

To get at Glenn’s real point then–why is someone who opposed the war appointing all these hawks to key foreign policy positions–it’d be useful to take Daniel at his word when he defines ideology as a heuristic tool, a process for making decisions, because that is where I think defenders of ideology misunderstand Obama’s apparent goals with his selections (and while I’m more optimistic than Glenn and Daniel, I’m not pretending I can guarantee that Obama will succeed at achieving these goals). Keep in mind, we’re not, primarily, talking about how Biden or Hillary or Rahm make decisions; they all (particularly Hillary and Rahm) are ideological creatures and we can be pretty sure how they’ll make decisions and what those decisions might be. We’re talking about how Obama makes decisions.

To get at how Obama intends to make decisions (accepting that Obama is making it up as he goes along and it may well not work out this way), there are two anecdotes about Biden’s selection as VP that are useful, the first from this article. Ryan Lizza describes Obama’s selection of Biden not to be about ideology, but about Biden’s empathy, his ability to understand and respect how his political opponents arrive at a decision.

The official story behind Obama’s Vice-Presidential choice is that Obama was won over by Biden’s ability to get support from Republicans in the Senate. In Biden’s telling, Obama liked his sense of empathy, a trait that Obama shares, to judge by the finely sketched characters in “Dreams from My Father,” his 1995 memoir. Biden told me that Senator Mike Mansfield, of Montana—who persuaded him to stay in the Senate in 1973, when he was distraught over the deaths of his wife and child—taught him that, no matter how reprehensible another senator’s views, his job was to figure out what was good in that person, what voters back home saw in him. It may be a sentimental view of how senators treated each other in an earlier age, but Biden suggested to me that when he repeated that to Obama it helped to bring them closer—and he said that he and Obama would bring that approach to Washington.


“I’m going to say something presumptuous,” Biden said to me. “The reason I’ve been relatively successful is that I have never questioned the motive of other senators, and that’s instinctively Barack. Barack doesn’t start off, ‘Well, you disagree, you must be a, you know, an S.O.B. or you must not care about the poor or you’re sexist or you’re racist or you’re a whatever.’ He doesn’t think that way.”

At least as Biden tells it, the chief characteristic that Obama liked about Biden was his ability to respectfully understand–but not necessary agree with–the views of those he opposed. Empathy is, to my mind, a fundamentally pragmatic trait, the ability to listen to and understand other perspectives in good faith. Empathy doesn’t preclude a subsequent rational consideration and rejection of those other perspectives, but it increases the chances that you’ll understand the logic and potential value of a perspective (and what it would take to persuade someone holding the other perspective of the value of your own policy decisions).

The other anecdote (which I can’t find–I’ll update the post when I do) comes from Biden’s description of when he finally overcame his doubts whether Obama was prepared to be President. He described a meeting between Obama and his financial advisors just after the economic meltdown. Obama was late. He came in, and asked four questions of all these muckety-muck experts like Paul Volcker, and then was ready to engage about policy. To Biden, Obama’s most important skill as a President is his ability to really draw on the expertise of his advisors, ask questions, yet always maintain an upper hand in those discussions.

That’s what Obama the pragmatist is about: asking the right questions of experts whose prejudices and ideology he might not share, but drawing on their expertise to make sound decisions. From everything we’ve seen, Obama imagines he can surround himself with experts, draw on their expertise, but ultimately make the final policy decisions himself. The big question for me is whether, when surrounded by people who haven’t even considered a particular question, he will think of that question himself.

Now, I realize and take seriously the axiom that personnel is policy–that Obama’s choices for these positions will ultimate dictate whose views he gets to hear and as a result circumscribe the policies he chooses between. That is a valid concern–particularly as it relates to Rahm in the domestic sphere (I’ll return to how I think process is going to work on domestic issues in a later post). But as regards to foreign policy decisions, we’d be a lot better off agonizing over Obama’s choice for National Security Advisor than his choice for Secretary of State, since the latter is not one of those policy-gatekeeper positions. But we’d also do well to remember that there are people like Samantha Power lurking in the background, advising Obama, raising questions he might not otherwise ask, just as Hillary would be standing in the foreground doing so. 

This post surely will not assuage those who are horrified by Obama’s selections thus far. But I hope it reminds them that pragmatism entails both a distance from existing ideology and a process for making decisions.  It’s in that process part where Obama has consistently made smart decisions–whether it was in opposing the war from the start or focusing on caucuses as a means to win the primary or declining public financing. And even Rahm’s ideology (coupled with his key position as gatekeeper) will not change the way Obama has apparently always made decisions.

61 replies
  1. chetnolian says:

    May I start off by saying that is an impressive post. You get to the heart of the importance of how things work and how decisions are best made. From my island fastness over the pond, I think I am seeing a set of choices that are difficult for the Republicans to paint as fringe, who will keep a variety of the constituencies who together put Obama where he is, and that will most of all work.

    To concentrate on Hillary, I never heard anyone suggest she’s not very able indeed. If you see one of Obama’s key foreign policy tasks as being to stop the USA being so hated abroad, perhaps even loved a bit, I suspect Hillary will be just the person to do it.

    Actually I speculated on Hillary for SoS to an expat neocon of my acquaintance on the day after the election. His spluttering fury at the very idea (but then he thought the job might go to Liebermann!!) convinced me it would be a great idea.

  2. Arbusto says:

    The Democratic version of pragmatism can be seen from the actions of Prez Clinton which was go along to get alone, basically taking GOP ideas and making them his own. Congress under Reid & Pelosi have been omni directional, swinging with the political wind. Obamas idea of pragmatism, to me, is best detailed in his support of eviserating the 4th amendment by his pragmatic support of the FISA bill in the 110th Congress. You call it pragmatic, I call it triangulation.

    • emptywheel says:

      I don’t disagree taht Obaam’s pragmatism led him to do something horrible with FISA.

      BUt there’s a difference between that and repackaging neocon ideology abroad and neoliberal ideology at home.

      They are different kinds of pragmatists, but Obama has thus far proven much more able at questioning pre-conceptions.

    • nihil says:

      )Have you considered that opposition to FISA would have been futile, have labeled him as pro-terrorist in moderates’ reading, and put the last nail in his hopes to become president, whereas, he could use the powers of the president to protect the privacy of the people. There is another point that may show Obama at his Machiavellian best: As a Constitutional scholar who has never published any opinions about Constitutional law (see the complaints from his students about his refusal to tip his hand on any Constitutional issue) is it possible that he thought that that FISA was unconstitutional and that even the present Court would see that.

  3. radiofreewill says:

    I also see Obama as selecting his staff primarily on the basis of expertise, reserving to himself the right to synthesize and decide the Policy issues for himself.

    In that sense, his general process would appear to be:

    – Take what is given (use Staff to aid in ‘understanding’)
    – Do the Right thing (formulate a Policy to solve the understood problem)
    – Make nothing of it (move on to the next issue)

    which is a Pragmatic Approach for making Decisions based on Competent Advice, as opposed to an Ideological Approach, such as Bush’s:

    – Create a Narrative of Policies (We are ‘at War’ with Terror)
    – Fix the Facts to Fit the Policies (Recently, the British Government has…)
    – Take Action Based on the ‘Facts’ (Tell Everyone You are Right and They are Wrong)

    where Loyalty to the ‘Cause’ (the perceived ‘us’ versus the perceived ‘them’) is at a Premium over Competence; and, also in Bush’s case, Loyalty has even been at a Premium over Criminal Behavior.

    The Pragmatism of Obama reflects Conscious Adaptation to Changing Circumstances; whereas Bush’s Ideology has been a Forced Delusion to Fit a Selfish Static View of a World that Can’t Be Allowed to Change.

    From out of the rubble of Bush’s Ideology, hopefully will come the Stability of Obama’s Pragmatism, from which We may begin to grow again.

    • Phoenix Woman says:


      It’s the difference between someone who sees his/her job as a public trust and someone who was put there so his oil-company and other buddies could accelerate the strip-and-flip they’re doing to the US economy.

    • Loo Hoo. says:


      EW, this is fantastic work; thanks so much. I’d never read Obama’s actual words on the run-up to the war (she says with embarrassment). I’m wondering why the campaign didn’t do a better job of getting the word out.

      We’ve got one of the most brilliant Americans on tap to be our President ever. His team is shaping up so well too. Maybe he plans for the first four years to concentrate on America, and the second four to focus on the rest of the world.

      Dang, we done proud in electing him! Again, thanks for this post.

  4. brantl says:

    First, is foreign policy really nothing more than “pragmatic actions in defense of national self-interest?”

    No, unless, somewhere in there, it’s defined as being in the “natioal self interest” to be fair to other people’s countries, to be respectful of other peoples’ countries’ rights, and above all of this to behave honorably and morally; otherwise it all becomes a global game of grab-and-run, much like what we did to Iraq, capisce?

  5. brantl says:

    I have hated hearing people like Cheney and others talk about supporting or not supporting countries based solely on whether being for or against a country helped us out. I’m sick of the whatever-works-for-us shit. It’s time that we did the right thing for its own sake, and things will work out for us in the end. Virtue is seldom made to stand alone.

  6. fahrender says:

    i’m more than a little doubtful that either fuckwad or Big Dick acted based on ideology unless you can call massive arrogance and a thirst for revenge an ideology. both the little twerp and the big sneer had serious axes to grind from years back. once they gained office they set about doing the dirty deed. a scorched earth policy and an cynical indifference to the need for human decency do not require a philosophical framework.

    • LabDancer says:

      As to GWB and Big Dick having absolutely NO “ideology”, I’m inclined to resist that you wouldn’t give up some ground on that extreme position very quickly in a one-on-one confrontation. Both essentially grew up amidst winger hawks & power elites who came together primarily to serve the prime directive of national security, without limits, with the other activities related to the governing powers, such winning elections, infrastructure, the environment, the tension between wealth and welfare all being very much subject to that.

      As to the influence of what values each holds on how they act, to the extent that either is equipped both intellectually and temperamentally to appreciate there MUST be limits to ANY prime directive, well, I wouldn’t wish to commit any time arguing against the essential accuracy of your pet name for GWB, but I actually think that it would be interesting and informative to listen to a lengthy, unstructured, candid discussion between Obama and Dick, and moreover quite informative, even educational for the kiddies.

      Gellman argues in Angler that Cheney’s got just enough smarts, a whole bag of bureaucratic tools, and inclinations both to act pre-emptively & ruthlessly [that last often just for as little reasons as to keep others unnerved by it and to keep the skill in trim], to trump the greater intellectual gifts of others; and his temperament appears to be not at all categorically different than Obama’s. My impression is that Gellman describes the essence of iconically over-muscled completely unapologetic royalism.

      Meanwhile, you’d be left to argue that someone thinking as an unreserved imperialist and royalist is not thinking ideologically.

  7. randiego says:

    Wow, amazing piece. I know that when I wake up on the west coast and there’s nothing new, that EW is working on some monster thread. You don’t disappoint!

    I’ve never read that speech opposing the Iraq debacle – I love how he included the occupation part, which is what I was shouting at anyone who would listen back then – no one seemed to be talking about occupation.

    It’s an over-used cliche, but the ‘chess player’ thing strikes me as apt. He could see how it was going to blow up in their faces, and had his moves thought out.

    How many others felt exactly this way and for whatever reason couldn’t or didn’t stand up and say it?

    It’s sad commentary that right now, I’m just happy now that we have a guy that can answer questions coherently at press conferences, and seems very engaged on solving problems.

    • emptywheel says:

      There was an interim speech–I think it was in 2004–where he insisted that we (Democrats) shouldn’t just go along and then whine about it afterwards. Now, to be fair, he was not always a giant of political courage in the Senate, but that needed to be said.

      Also, one could make a case that Kerry was attracted precisely to Obama’s foreign policy pragmatism (though I’ll say again that he connects it with domestic issues), but felt like he had never been able to voice that pragmatism.

      Frankly, I hope that one thing that comes out of Obama’s presidency is a true, new, third foreign policy ideogy, one that gets over hegemony and learns to play nice with the rest of the world in the sake of sustainability.

  8. bell says:

    while i think it’s beneficial to consider empathize with others views, ideology and pragmatism aren’t traits that operate in a vacuum separate from one another… bush and cheney were being ideological and pragmatic in their choice of directions to go.. however i don’t think empathy was a conscious underlying consideration of either of them… that is probably the biggest potential difference i could see between these individuals.. it will be interesting to see where obama’s desire to include everyone – so called experts – in particular, if indeed the experts zeal negates more pragmatic considerations… the usa needs to be more honest in its foreign policy goals especially following on the heels of the bush admin’s lack of accountability or transparency..

    • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

      Well, I don’t have the citations handy, but the research suggests that people who involve emotions in their decision-making end up overall making better decisions.

      It makes sense; ‘empathy’ is a way of collecting (emotional) information that provides insight as to motive, and into what’s ‘really’ going on. And it speaks well of Biden that he learned the lesson that Mansfield taught; clearly, too many others didn’t pay attention.

      Here’s my sense, FWIW:

      1. The foreign policy experts and pundits don’t ‘get’ Obama in many respects because too few of them grew up seeing lepers, or seeing the chicken that was going to be dinner have its head cut off. (Obama relates both experiences in the first part of “Dreams of My Father.) This is the way that many people in the world live, but it is really ‘foreign’ to most Americans, so they don’t grasp the hunger, the desperate needs that drive much of what we view as ‘piracy’, or ‘terrorism’.

      2. This is the first US post-Katrina administration, and the first president coming in to office after the CIA finally [about 20 years too late] formally identified resource scarcity, population pressures, and environmental degradation as ’security risks’. This means that the Military-Industrial-Complex guys and gals — who sell weapons — can’t provide the kinds of solutions that are best met by soils scientists and plant biologists: helping people grow food.

      3. Oceanographers are reporting and documenting serious problems with coral reefs (which are at the bottom of the food chain and help oxygenate the oceans). Although seemingly small, this is a very, very big deal and threatens many already seriously depleted fisheries worldwide — this in turn affects the food supplies of all nations, but especially Asia. There’s simply no ballistic system or missile system that can conceivably address the underlying problem of dying coral reefs.

      Obama is entering office in an era that is unprecedented.
      All the hyperventilating over his selections fails to take into account his own personal history and travels; nor do they appear to recognize that he learned the lesson his stepfather taught him: “The weak man has his land taken by the strong man. If you can’t be strong, be clever.”

      The Bushies were ideological without the empathy required to actually understand complex problems in a world changing so fast that it’s terribly difficult to know whether you have the correct information.

      The Bushies ideology is basically a holdover of 19th and 20th century technologies and economies. That is still the mode that the pundits are using to assess Obama.

      Those older paradigms simply don’t adequately capture the kinds of problems that he’s going to be confronting. Those problems are going to require a cohesive group of people who can make decisions and move rapidly to implement solutions.

      The Bushies are all about centralized, bureaucratic command-and-control.

      Obama is going to have to be about ‘networks’ of skilled, smart people who can work cohesively. That requires pragmatism, not ideology.

      I love this post… really splendid!
      Agree that even Glenn gets it wrong this time.

      (Maybe more pundits need to follow Nicholas Kristoff — or Jimmy Carter — off to some fetid, mosquito-ridden swamp, or some desolate desert region? If they did so, they’d have a better grasp of what Obama is going to be facing, and IMHO it is ominous.)

      • bell says:

        i really like what you say and agree with your observations and suggestions.. i particularly like the comment #1 on understanding terrorism or piracy and can’t agree more strongly on your comments on that.. thanks for the reply on ‘empathy’ and etc..

  9. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    I love this post.
    In fact, it’s such a breath of fresh air, I’m going to reread it and then comment again.

    We hear so much in the ‘media’ about how politicians are always running for office, that their motives must always be second-guessed. Although that’s surely partly true, it acidifies the social discourse.

    The focus on WHY Biden has been successful, and about Obama’s ability to bring his phenomenally broad social experiences to decision-making is a wonderfully refreshing topic, and an important one.

    Thx, EW!

  10. bobschacht says:

    Thanks for a great post, delving deeper into the issues that I was trying to make in my Oxdown response to Greenwald’s post.

    One further note on “Biden’s empathy”: This sounds very much like what made President Carter a Nobel Prize-winning negotiator. I read a long news piece some years ago analyzing how Carter succeeded in negotiating where others generally failed– even when negotiating with people widely considered as genuinely bad actors. His answer was along the same lines as the description you wrote about Biden’s empathy.

    Bob in HI

    • emptywheel says:


      You forgot to link to your diary. Here are my favorite points in it:

      Is “Progressive” an ideology? It used to be–about 100 years ago. But the Wikipedia is silent about it today, except for The Progressive monthly magazine, identified as a “Leftist” organization known for its pacifism. Which happens to be published in my home town (Madison, Wisconsin). As a political movement, it has been revived as Progressive Democrats of America:


      This statement is a bit vague on what their “progressive principles” are, but they have a platform with 5 planks:

      1. End the War, Redirect Funding
      2. Health Care for All
      3. Economic Justice
      4. Clean, Fair, Transparent Elections
      5. Stop Global Warming
      These are listed as “priorities” rather than principles, but they point the way towards ideological principles. (I am a current officer in Progressive Democrats of Hawaii, and we have a similar platform.)


      Finally, “Liberalism” is supposed to be an ideology, but it has been scorned so successfully by Right-wingers that most liberals have grown shy of the label. I wish everyone would become re-acquainted with the historical meaning of Liberalism. We haven’t fought back to reclaim its good name, but we should.

      So let’s not get too enthusiastic about pragmatism. Yes, our progressivism or liberalism needs to be grounded in pragmatism, but we should not be shy about developing, marketing, and defending our ideology.

      One thing I don’t think I fully did in this post was to reiterate the diffrence–in DC-speak, at least–between ideology writ large, and “foreign policy ideology” which is generally limited to realism and (neocon) idealism. One of the things that bothered me about Glenn and Daniel’s posts is that they don’t acknowledge that when you talk about ideology (as taught in schools or as touted on Sunday shows), that’s what you get. And one of the problems with the non-Clinton Democrats (that is, the non-neocon idealists) is that Democrats haven’t packaged some very good progressive ideas into something that DC recognizes as an ideology.

      Unfortunately, it’d be a lot easier to make that move if a SOS established that ideology (which is why I would prefer a Richardson as SOS, because he’d be the guy to do it). But I do think new ideologies come out of pragmatic attempts to get beyond the current stale ideologies we do have.

      • bobschacht says:

        Thanks for your response, and the link to my diary. I agree with the points you are making. In fact, I was just over at my diary writing a response to your post. I think we are converging (if we were ever that far apart.) In fact, most of the difference was due to your deference to the definition of ideology that prevails around the Beltway, and I can’t argue with your assessment of that.

        Bob in HI

    • Phoenix Woman says:

      Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me at all. Guys like Greenwald (and a non-trivial number of other lefty bloggers) had already made up their minds ages ago that they were going to view everything Obama said or did in the worst possible light and use it to reinforce their own views of the man. Granted, I was disappointed to see Edwards go down in flames (in retrospect, that turned out to be extremely good news), and I liked Hillary’s health care plan a touch more than Obama’s, but I was willing to give him a chance.

      As EW states, Obama’s pragmatism also means that he’s willing to drop his original plans, if any, and make things up as he goes along — which was the same thing FDR did in 1933. Furthermore, his advisors look to be willing to drop their ideological bias in favor of pragmatism. A case in point: His fiscal advisors are associated with Robert Rubin, a noted deficit hawk and deregulation fan. But guess what? These disciples of Rubin have turned their back on deficit reduction in favor of stimulus, and are rejecting Rubin’s other great love, deregulation.

      • bobschacht says:

        I take Obama’s fluidity on this point as an indication that his ideas are not yet frozen, and that he is open to new ideas– although not just willy-nilly, but in line with other principles.

        The pragmatic regard for science means that we must not become too attached to any particular theory, because then we would no longer be truly willing to test it, and reject it if it is found unworkable. In the present climate of economic meltdown, this means adaptability, which is extremely important now. This stands in strong contrast with Republican ideology, which has become (until McCain’s defeat) extremely rigid.

        Bob in HI

        • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

          adaptability, which is extremely important now

          Agree with the importance of adaptability.
          FWIW, that’s surely been part of Putin’s success.
          As the Chinese say, “That which does not bend with the wind is broken by it.”
          Bush was broken.
          Here’s hoping Obama is far more resilient, which is one aspect of ‘pragmatism’ but not of ‘ideology’.

  11. oldtree says:

    Watch their votes and follow the money. War is about profit now. We haven’t had a reason for one that didn’t involve money and profiteering for… sorry, forgot. They are all about profiteering.
    When it comes to war, all you will hear is talk, and the sound of explosions and weapons fire. There will be no meaningful discussion. The deals are made behind closed doors and the pentagon gets its way.
    Have a lot of things to “change”.

  12. skdadl says:

    Just for myself, I cope with the tension between pragmatism and “ideology” (well: to me, principles and ideals) by trying to think historically. I agree with you, EW, that it is a caricature of the problem to cast that tension as a simple opposition.

    Deep social and cultural change happen so slowly. Sometimes the shift seems very sudden, but in my reading of social history, there is always a long period of preparation before masses of people are ready to move on fundamental issues. I think we just have to be able to see ourselves in history, to say, well, that’s what was there for me to do in my time, so I did it, and to accept that that’s the best we can do. The only alternative is violent revolution, and I decided long ago that I didn’t want to live through such a thing and therefore couldn’t recommend it to anyone else, although I know that many people in the world end up with no alternative, and I salute them for their courage.

    I’d never read Obama’s 2002 speech before, and I’m so impressed. It’s a great speech, and it is very good of you to keep it before us … and him. I’m not able to think as practically as you are because I’m so far removed, but I do believe that the rest of the world wants to believe that Obama is capable of holding more than one thought at a time in his mind, that he can think of what can be done today and tomorrow and yet still remember the principles and ideals.

  13. MadDog says:

    Sorta OT and sorta not – From the AP via Atrios:

    Brennan out of running for top intel post

    John Brennan, President-elect Barack Obama’s top adviser on intelligence, has taken his name out of the running for any intelligence position in the new administration.

    In a letter Tuesday, Brennan wrote letter to Obama that he did not want to be a distraction. His potential appointment has raised a firestorm in liberal blogs who associate him with the Bush administration’s interrogation, detention and rendition policies.

    “The fact that I was not involved in the decisionmaking process for any of these controversial policies and actions has been ignored,” he wrote, in a letter obtained by The Associated Press.

    • emptywheel says:

      Not necessarily pragmatism, but in the “how to get things done” department.

      During elections when leaks can distract from the central focus? No leaks.
      During periods of selection for potential team members? Lots of trial balloons, with apparent respect for those balloons.

      I just hope Rahm learns to STFU when we get back to trying to achieve the central focus of governing.

    • brendanx says:

      That’s an encouraging signal. When was a “firestorm in liberal blogs” ever considered a “distraction”, unless one wished to be distracted?

  14. brendanx says:

    It’s funny – I’d never read Obama’s 2002 war speech, despite the fact that his stated opposition to the war was the determining factor in my early support for him.

    • emptywheel says:

      One thing that I discovered while looking is that there are only about 16 seconds of video from it. Which might be why you haven’t seen it (though to be fair, I hadn’t read it in its entirety, either–I was just looking for his statement of how he came to the decision about the war in real time).

  15. bmaz says:

    Maybe this distinction is where the rubber meets the road of your “About Hillary as SoS Thing” post. Maybe Richardson, nor anybody else, could make the transformation very quickly and directly, even if he and Obama were all in for doing it. Too much inertia of the locked in conventional wisdom.

    I may be straining here a bit, I dunno; but maybe, if Obama really is who we are all assuming he is for this discussion, and has the strength to maintain that, the results can drive the ideology, whereas the ideology usually drives the results.

    What I am getting at is irrespective of who and what the Clintons are, the name brings juice to get things done. If Obama and Hillary can pull some peace and sensibility out of their butts in the mideast (yeah, I know, a huge if) the resulting dominoes might forever knock over the neocon conservative shit that we have had for so long. Peace and sensibility breeding peace and sensibility kind of.

    But it depends on actually getting some shit done. Which goes back to my thought that HRC may actually be a great tool for this. No matter what else you say about her, the woman is tough as nails and can get shit done. And the neocons and the military, despite all the surface blathering, do kind of trust her. But if results can be obtained, however they are obtained, Obama can point to them as validation of his new way and a discrediting of the old way. Results drive the ideology.

    • bobschacht says:

      “…if Obama really is who we are all assuming he is for this discussion, and has the strength to maintain that, the results can drive the ideology, whereas the ideology usually drives the results.”

      This is a nice way of putting an important point. Ideology drives the results when there is an emotional commitment to a particular ideology (”My mind’s made up–Don’t confuse me with facts!”) This has been the Republicans downfall. It also provided ammo for Clinton’s derisive graphic summary– something about “If you find yourself in a hole, maybe its time to stop digging!”

      To the pragmatist, however, ideologies are judged by their results. This is your “results drive the ideology.” There is no emotional commitment to any particular ideology, so if your current ideology doesn’t work, you try something else. Keynesian economics, for example, is an ideology, and I think we’re going to be hearing a great deal more about it in the coming months. Democrats are usually Keynesians. Republicans seldom are. Instead, they are usually besotted with Milton Friedman’s Monetarist theories, which I think is where most of the Bushies reside.

      Bob in HI

  16. LabDancer says:

    I haven’t written before about to any particular point on Obama’s cave-in on the FISA amendment and telco immunity, mostly because it seemed so obviously, to use your term, a ‘pragmatic’ solution to a policy dilemma that seemed to hold the potential to be used as a simple mnemonic to answer, even attack, and thereby prevent center-leaning conservatives and so-called ‘Reagan Democrats’ for two electoral conversational acts which the Obama campaign employed with particular, if not pivotal, efficacy [to adopt your term], both in the primaries and in the general:

    [1] rational discussion within their communities: [family, friends, neighbors, work, church and other interest-based associations] about maybe voting for him [such as in the white dominated state of Iowa in particular, his electoral success there allowing it to be held up as an exhibit for use in other white-dominated states and more generally in white-dominated communities], and

    [2] endorsements from those identified with foreign policy ‘toughness’: starting with Clark, through Hagel, impliedly Lugar, through Biden, to the big one in Powell, and all the way right to the absurd sight of an endorsement from Ken Adelmen.

    Now that you’ve raised the tension between values and efficacy [my preferred terms for what you are labelling “ideology and pragmatism”], is it time to raise exactly what values Obama sacrificed in his cave-in on the FISA amendment and telco immunity?

    Because if folks here are open to getting into the weeds on that issue, from my perspective, notwithstanding my have a professional purism on the 4th amendment, it was not all that much, and whatever ground was lost is readily available to be regained [though we must get on that, and hard].

    Or should that particular wetlands be left for exploration to another time?

    • brendanx says:

      I wouldn’t call caving on FISA a “pragmatic” solution to anything, or even a solution of any kind to anything. It was a nakedly political piece of buck-passing and conflict avoidance. It seems the discussion is a more hopeful one about what Obama might do, as opposed to what concerns he’ll leave unaddressed.

      • LabDancer says:

        You’re entitled to that view, of course – – but I’m not so sure there wasn’t more behind it than simply the naked stuff – – not that it needed more, but having worked in and around that stuff for a long time, I go further and suggest it’s LIKELY there was more to it. I can think of a whole bunch of things in that vein. But I’m not sure anything Obama says further on the issue isn’t going to carry the taint of political opportunism, and not only that, but also his and his impending WH counsel’s public resort to intellectual dishonesty.

        Subject to what happens from the challenges by EFF and ACLU – – and maybe not even – – and regardless the facts that come out, how much of them and how they come to us – – I’m willing to bet that precisely not one person is going to be cut a check by a telco or by the federal government in its stead for their privacy rights having been invaded by the Bush Cheney post 9/11 warrantless wiretapping program.

        [Though I do allow for the possibility that a set of a relatively limited number of individuals will receive monetary honorariums in recognition of damage done to them by the abuse of such invasions – not that the terms will be made public or even the precise rationale and connection made transparent. And of course I would wish to exclude checks written to support the campaigns of candidates for political office and the endeavours of those on K Street.]

  17. radiofreewill says:

    As long as we’re talking Ideological vs. Pragmatic, here’s a cipher for relating the Possibilities between the Major Western Religions and the Benefits of Living a ‘less-attached’, more quality driven, fully human Life.

    If you don’t mind, take a clean sheet of printer paper and turn it landscape. Divide the paper into 4 columns. Draw a house (a square with a triangle roof) in the middle of each column for the first three columns from the left.

    On the peak of the roof of the left-most house, draw a Star of David. Below the house, in the lower third of the column, write “Moses taught them that, among themselves, they should Practice Peace, Love and Understanding.” Above the Star of David, in the upper third of the column, write “We are the Chosen People”.

    Put a Cross on the roof of the middle house, and below it write “Jesus taught them that, among themselves, they should Practice Peace, Love and Understanding.” Above the Cross write “Jesus is the Only Way and Everyone Else is Wrong.”

    On the roof of the right-most house put a Crescent Moon, and below the house write “Mohammad taught them that, among themselves, they should Practice Peace, Love and Understanding.” And, above the Crescent Moon, write “Jesus was Just a Prophet, but Mohammad was God’s Last Prophet.”

    Now, in the righthand, empty column, in-line with the quotes in the top third of the other columns, write “Ideological – Conflict of Beliefs.” In the bottom third write “Pragmatic – Harmony of Practices”. In-line with the houses, in the middle of the righthand column, put “Intensity of Attachment” – from Strong Attachment (Ideological – ‘Our’ Truth is the Only Truth) to No Attachment (Pragmatic – All Paths are Sacred).

    Draw an ‘arrow’ going down from “Ideological – Conflict of Beliefs” to “Intensity of Attachment”, and another arrow continuing down from “Intensity of Attachment” towards “Harmony of Practices”.

    Essentially, Obama is Leading US on an Exodus away from the Plagued Land of Bush’s Ideology and towards a Promised Land of Stability through Pragmatic, Shared Experience – and, in that move towards Pragmatism lies, not just US, but the Whole World coming together – each in his or her own way – in a Harmony of Practices that Produces Peace in Changing Times for All.

    Ideology Divides, Pragmatism Joins – in All Human Endeavors.

    Obama is the Right Leader for Our Time.

  18. brendanx says:

    When it comes to foreign policy, “ideology” is a fiction. There are only constellations of interests, often barely wrapped in the flimsiest ideological tissue (what was the Bush I “ideology”, or Clinton’s?). Because “neoconservatism” represents such narrow and disreputable interests (war profiteers and Israeli expansionists) it had to mask itself with unusually strident “ideas”. This came especially easily and naturally as neoconservatives have such a base in the press.

    • emptywheel says:

      Bollocks. You’re flipping what ideologies are (and why people who claim they are “just values” are very wrong).

      There have been two dominant strains of foreign policy ideology in the US since WWII. THe first strain is a continuation of our idealism–which interprets our actions in WWII as the US saving the world–to cloak our expansionism in happy terms (usually something called “democracy” that has little to do with popular elections.

      The realists cloaked their expansionism in less idealistic terms.

      But these are both precisely ideologies bc they come with the kind of infrastructure (school programs, think tanks, journals) that give them lasting legitimacy and because they shift the focus from interests to both means and “goals” they support.

      The two Iraq Wars (one led by Bush I under the guise of realism, the second by Bush II under the guise of idealism) both show the vacuity of these two ideologies–neither served to accomplish what were taken to be our interests (docile client states in the ME facilitating the domination of the oil industry).

      The reason it has taken pragmatists to question the most recent war is twofold. First, because the many statements of ideology espoused by progressives (and attacked as unserious by pundits) don’t have the infrastructure to be an ideology. And second, because getting out of these two failed ideologies has/will take a fundamental rethinking of the underlying assumptions AND dealing with the consequences of that rethinking at home.

  19. lllphd says:

    marcy, this post was so needed, and so necessary. thanks oodles.

    for me, i have been watching obama’s selections increase the pragmatism in his approach in an enormous way. his economic selections from the clinton camp are directed toward their previous SUCCESS (that highly pragmatic notion) in this sphere, so in that way i am calmed. the paucity of labor representation could trouble me, but the plans for so many jobs, tied to improving the infrastructure, are also encouraging. this does not signal an abandonment of ideologies at all. if he ends up ignoring the plight of the workers and middle class, that will be quite another matter, but it just does not seem likely.

    wrt the other choices, to me it is all impressive. it all gives us a window into the amazing breadth and scope of his mind; this guy is so capable of gathering all the issues together, prioritizing them, and projecting them way into the future, all the while juggling the players and their personalities like some miraculous conflation of poker player and chess master. he never ceases to amaze me, and i say this as a supporter and not a cult koolaid drinker. i’m just a psychologist and watching him has been nothing short of breathtaking.

    there is much to learn in his choices of players in his plans. in fact, his selections are also very heavily weighted toward the jewish sector, which – along with his campaign promises to that group – suggest his recognition of the immense POWER this group wields; formidable. yet he courts it, with grace, and not without respect. but in such a way that leaves me suspecting this much: he has his eye – and hillary’s role in this is not in the least bit trivial – on ultimately making strides, nay leaps, toward peace in that region. perhaps the only thing more enticing to hillary a this stage than the presidency would be the nobel peace prize. and i would not doubt for a moment that obama is including consideration of that plum for her in his own reckoning.

    but for obama to pull off anything beginning toward reconciliation in the middle east, he must first not just woo israel; he must fully appease her, even lull her into the inevitable recognition that she must relinquish not just some power, but some intent, and not least of all, some hubris. there is no way obama could achieve all these steps by placing his ultimate goal boldly up front, which would only bring a fight at every step. he can only achieve this by engaging the power holders in the first phase in order to get them on board with the biggest steps toward the larger goals.

    i may well be reading far more into this man’s thinking than is really there, and i confess i would have never been inclined to give anyone on the planet so much credit before i watched his campaign. in fact, i would have never even considered in my own mind the value of this type of approach.

    but watching how masterfully he has turned so many minds and hearts in the past year, i discover that not only is my mind turned in this loftier direction, i can believe it is close to what he hopes for all of us.

    so, to the bottom line here, it sure does seem more in keeping with dissolving the distinction between ideologies and pragmatisms*. the only way i can agree with bmaz in saying that results drive the ideology is to add the caveat that the ends canNOT justify the means when they run counter to ideology. i just don’t think it is necessary to think of these two things as orthogonal. in fact, when ideology is grounded in reality and when pragmatic considerations keep morality and principles always in view, they become the two wings of a soaring eagle.

    * i reflect here upon the similar distinction that is becoming an increasing gap in my profession, that between the ethical standard and risk management. to my idealistic mind, there should be no real distinction between these, yet they are increasingly worlds apart.

  20. JEP07 says:

    As one of those who believes here is no good war, but also recognizes Obama’s political ascension as historic and very heartening in so many ideological grounds, I am torn between my idealism and my trust that Obama has proven his leadership.

    So, while I accept that we are relegated to the baby steps he knows we must take AWAY from this profiteer’s war, I adjure him and his new cabinet and his entire staff, to start seriously contemplating the thought of world peace, not as a vague idealistic concept, but as an ultimate and achievable goal of both our foreign and domestic policy.

    There is a very big difference between defending this country and pre-emptive wars. We can defend ourselves without fomenting war and torture and suffering throughout the world. And if there is any good reason for us to go anywhere in the world to commit war, it is not too deeply buried in Lincoln’s admonition that we might, ne day, put an end to slavery, henceforth, forever and EVERYWHERE!

  21. bell says:

    do you use your rear view mirror when you drive, or do you only rely on the front window view? the 2 views are both necessary and more complete.. thinking of idealism and pragmatism as separate and unconnected to one another would foster an unbalanced view which would describe the bush admin.. whether obama swings 180% remains to be seen, but i think that would be a mistake as well..

  22. CasualObserver says:

    Today, Obama stated that the american people voted against ideology. That they were done with ideology and wanted “smart and effective” government.

    This is nonsense, of course. Obama himself has an ideology, but he masks it (either intentionally or not) with tag lines such as “common sense”, and “fairness”, which can mean anything and everything.

    Going forward, it should be the job of political reporters and bloggers to try to draw out what his ideology actually is. My own opinion is that Obama cannot be a great president without an expressed ideology.

    • emptywheel says:

      Dunno. He might be more successful if he doesn’t let on for two or three–or seven or eight years.

      People define new ideologies in retrospect, I think.

      Did he say this, btw, in his presser?

      • CasualObserver says:

        EW, yes, during the presser, I’m pretty sure during the Q/A.

        He’s off base on “the vision thing”–e.g. ideology,imo. The american people want ideology. They want more than a guy who can make the trains run on time.

          • CasualObserver says:

            OK, dammit. It’s definition time.

            There’s a big difference between no ideology and no vision and simple competence.

            Wiki sez:

            An ideology is a set of beliefs, aims and ideas, especially in politics. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things (compare Weltanschauung), as in common sense (see Ideology in everyday society below) and several philosophical tendencies (see Political ideologies), or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society.

            I agree competence doesn’t even enter into the equation. But I may differ with you on “vision” and “ideology”. To me, they are largely similar.

            I’m arguing that americans want more than competence. they also want an american ideology.

            • CasualObserver says:

              For example, torture. We americans don’t despise and prohibit torture because it doesn’t work, but because it’s antithetical to our ideology. Ever since George Washington articulated that we would not go there, and why.

            • emptywheel says:

              An American belief system–absolutely. But I am arguing that “ideology” when used in the FP context is much more limited and cynical than that. And FP aside, that ideology includes a lot of connotations that wiki apparently doesn’t account for.

              Call it vision–great. But when you use the word ideology, you’re invoking a more cynical concept.

              • CasualObserver says:

                But when you use the word ideology, you’re invoking a more cynical concept.

                OK, accepting for sake of argument that when it comes to FP, cynicism reigns. But the reason Americans remember “Icht ein Berliner” (and Germans, and everyone else) is that it reached beyond cynicism. This is why Kennedy was great. It’s also one reason why the Right canonized Reagan–with his “tear down this wall” and “ash heap of history”. These were ideological statements that resonated deeply with many americans.

                Again, imo, Obama won’t be a great president unless he articulates an ideology. Nor will he repair our standing internationally without clear ideological statements that demonstrate that Bush policies are truly repudiated and gone. Simply being competent and pragmatic won’t take him and us back where we want to be, internationally.

  23. AngryMan says:

    This is one of the few articles for which I disagree with Emptywheel. I enjoy her lucid thinking and clear writing almost every day. But, to some degree, a straw horse has been made here, that the arguments about ideology and pragmatism are concentrated on foreign policy – which I don’t think is true. And that is the first step to misunderstanding why the questions of ideology are coming up.

    Yes we want competence. No we don’t live in a fairy world where we can hope to have everyone be nice and kissy kissy about foreign relations. That is what pragmatism tells us.

    On the other hand, accepting this, we need to pick experts by judging their expertise. And their expertise (that is success in predicting outcomes and prescribing solutions)is based on their ideology – or world view of how things work. I don’t care if we have a Republican, Democrat, Liberal, or Conservative, running D-Day – as long as they are strong on Logistics, Strategy, and Leadership.

    Similarly, I want someone good at predicting and prescribing economic policy and regulation to facilitate fixing our economy. But, finding those who are competent is a question of ideology – because that is the framework by which the predict and prescribe. And, the best framework has the best results.

    The judiciary, social welfare, education/research, necessarily face this same hurdle. And to ignore the hurdle by being pragmatic is a little to like ostrich behavior in my opinion.

    There are folks, like Rubin, don’t have a very great track record. And that’s true of a number of players from the Clinton administration – from which the President-elect is sourcing much of his administration. Granted, we must acknowledge that there haven’t been many progressive training grounds for the last thirty years – and therefore it is inevitable that our future administration has significant grounding in the past Clinton administration.

    But, the truth is that it feels like Progressives have been frozen out so far. And this President-elect would not be so, except for Progressives. It is not the Democratic Party that carried him. It’s sure not the Republicans. Yes, once he gained enough traction he was able to get support from the DCC. What else were they to do? But, Progressives had to carry him to that point first, and should accordingly be represented in a meaningful way as part of his inner circle.

    Meanwhile, we do need to ask the question: how competent are these so called ‘pragmatic’ choices. Where they can prove a track record of competence, there isn’t a problem with pragmatism. After all, being pragmatic is about being able to realize goals based on ones priorities and resources. But competence isn’t a matter of having served in Washington. Nor is it about being approved by pundits. And its not about who is easy to get past the Republican Rear Guard (RRG). No, it is about realizing the promise that the President-elect made to this country. Who can see the way through to do so? The same old same olds? Or maybe someone new?

    It’s easy for smart, hardworking, well-connected people to make mistakes. For all of Camelot, JFK left us with The Bay of Pigs (which may be why we continue to shun Cuba) and the Vietnam War. I don’t say this to dirty his legacy, he was a leader that I highly respect. But, even in those days, when one could proclaim to be a liberal out loud, bright minds and establishment connections weren’t enough avoid massive awful failures.

    Our challenges then, arguably, were less than they are today. The poisoning of science, facts and logic that we see today was much less developed. The separate of church and state were much more accepted. No one was attacking our shores. Our economic problems were limited, and economic cycles were of a shorter and less volatile nature. In fact, our primary problem was that of race relations and continuing vestiges of poverty.

    I believe that we have made great progress on race relations, in part do to the honesty of the Kennedy administration. But we still have a long way to go, no matter who is in the White House.

    On the other hand, the issue of poverty today is not one of a small but stubborn underclass that we don’t know how to bootstrap up into the middle class. No, it is much more serious. It is the problem of a middle class that is melting and breaking off like sheets ice from the arctic glaciers, that float and dissolve into the sea poverty. And this one issue, can do more to not only undermine democracy, but to beat back the advances made against racial discrimination, such that it has to be seen as one of, or perhaps the biggest, threat facing our country today.

    Only competence, not pragmatism, will solve this problem.

    • emptywheel says:

      But, to some degree, a straw horse has been made here, that the arguments about ideology and pragmatism are concentrated on foreign policy – which I don’t think is true. And that is the first step to misunderstanding why the questions of ideology are coming up.

      When I wrote this, I was responding to Glenn, who was talking specifically about foreign policy.

      Frankly, I agree with Ian that everyone is either a keynsian or a monetarist, and frankly, I’m disturbed about Rubin’s presence in the neighborhood.

      As to domestic policy (note, I did say I was going to return to this), Obama has nominated a number of people who are progressives in the domestic policy sphere. Obviously, there are some big ones still open, there, but some of the key figures are very progressive, or very keen to implement health care and the like.

      My point here was that the treatment of ideology (as distinct from beliefs or values or world view), we wouldn’t want Obama to ascribe to ideologies that govern US foreign policy.

  24. Professor Foland says:

    It seems to me that one must first figure out what one wants; that’s the idealism side. Pragmatism then means realistically understanding the best path to maximizing whatever it is your idealism has settled upon, given your resources. “Idealism vs pragmatism” arguments often tend towards the silly because they are usually discussed in different spaces; one in the space of ends, the other in the space of means. Until you make them commensurate, you won’t make much progress.

    Should anyone have an interest, back in August I wrote up some of my (mathematics-inspired) thoughts about the intersection of pragmatism and idealism; at the time, it was pointed towards the Georgia debacle. It tries to lay out a framework for making decisions about the “best path to maximization” that I mention above.

    My own conclusion:

    This is, as it turns out, just a math problem. The result is the Kelly formula. When the expected value of the stake is positive, you stake a fraction of your resources…

    However, when the expected payout is negative (i.e. bp-q is negative), you do nothing….

    Let me put it another way. If an Administration is arguing that one side is all SAL [Sweetness And Light] and the other side the Prince of Evil, that our foreign policy is to support people who are SAL, and that by intervening we might be able to improve the SAL of the world–even if you uncritically accept all of those assertions, that is still not a case for any particular action one way or another.

  25. TheraP says:

    I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again: EW, you have one of the best analytic minds on the web!

    One quick thought, although late to this party, and I really like Prof Foland’s idea about idealism for finding the goals. And pragmatism for working toward them. And it fits with what I wanted to say after reading your post and other comments:

    Seems to me that “empathy” is part of an “ethic of care” rather than an ethic of rules and regulations (springing from ideological assumptions perhaps). To me the most important thing about empathy is that is brings us to our common humanity. To the dignity of each and all.

    Obama, in my view, sees the larger picture. He is not constrained by the “picture” that people used to go to war or whatever the issue might be. His mind says… hey, we don’t need to “see” things that way just because that’s the way they’ve been seen in the past. Let’s take a larger perspective. Let’s put that issue into a larger perspective – and now we can see it differently.

    And I suspect the larger perspective is what I have called the “ethic of care” or “our common humanity” and a search for “win-win” policies. So I’m suspecting that in making his choices for people to lead as part of his team, he’s looking for people who can make those leaps – who can revision a new or better “playing field” which allows for win-win, based on empathy for our common humanity.

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