Jacob Bronsther '11 analyzes Obama's pragmatism in Christian Science Monitor

Jacob Bronsther '11 analyzes Obama's pragmatism in Christian Science Monitor

In an opinion piece, "The emptiness of Obama's pragmatism," in the May 26, 2009 Christian Science Monitor, Jacob Bronsther '11 analyzes Barack Obama's rhetoric in an attempt to define what the president means when he refers to the "pragmatism" of his policies.

Bronsther touches on the history of philosophical pragmatism, which originated in the late 19th century and advanced the view that purely theoretical questions cannot be answered; a theory's validity hinges on how it affects human experience for the better. The philosophical movement, in turn, influenced the politics of the time, prompting politicians to consider a proposed policy's real-world impact. Calling this reasoned, empirical approach "Pragmatism 1," Bronsther then describes what he calls "Pragmatism 2," the idea that controversial issues should be addressed with policies designed to elicit bipartisan support, with the primary goal of avoiding legislative gridlock.

"Obama has governed so far as though Pragmatism 1 entails Pragmatism 2," Bronsther writes. "He presumes that policies forged by reason, evidence, and 'unbiased' expertise (Pragmatism 1)—those policies that 'work'—will garner the support of all reasonable members of Congress and thus bridge partisan divides (Pragmatism 2). He bases his belief in the possibility of national and political consensus on this faulty argument."

Partisan division will continue, Bronsther argues, unless Obama weds his pragmatic arguments with moral ones. Contention across the aisles does not occur, Bronsther says, "because liberals and conservatives solve math differently" but rather because "the deeper partisan disagreements are ethical and philosophical.... For Obama and other Democratic leaders to be the harbingers of a lasting American liberalism, they need to unite their pragmatism rhetoric with real moral argument about the meaning of rights, freedom, and equality. They need to prove that their understanding of what works is connected to what is right and just beyond mere assertion. The same applies to conservatives."

Citing the enduring nature of the Reagan revolution, Bronsther asserts that Ronald Reagan based his programs on certain principles separate from the actual policies: "Through a straightforward moral discussion, partisans may come to understand that the other side has good intentions, but different intuitions or reasoned arguments. And this realization—more than any graph detailing the future benefits of X,Y, or Z policy—might lead to the more civil discussion that Obama aims to lead.... Policy devoid of clear ethical theory creates a nation without principle, and a nation without principle is a nation on stilts."

Posted on May 27, 2009