Chris Hayes has written an essay on pragmatism versus ideology that is inspiring much thoughtful commentary. It’s worth reading all the way through, but to simplify, Hayes looks at the reigning conventional wisdom that the Bush Administration failed because it is too ideological, whereas the Obama Administration promises to be pragmatic.
However, Chris argues, ideology and pragmatism do not neatly sort themselves into cleanly separated dichotomies.
For one thing, as Glenn Greenwald has astutely pointed out on his blog, while ideology can lead decision-makers to ignore facts, it is also what sets the limiting conditions for any pragmatic calculation of interests. “Presumably, there are instances where a proposed war might be very pragmatically beneficial in promoting our national self-interest,” Greenwald wrote, “but is still something that we ought not to do. Why? 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.'”
One frustration I had with Chris’s essay, and most of the essays written in response to it, is that definitions of “ideology” and “pragmatism” remain a bit fuzzy.
For example, Hayes quotes Alan Greenspan: “Well, remember that what an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to–to exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not.”
Here’s where I come in. I think Greenspan is right when he says that people deal with reality through conceptual frameworks. Buddhist teaching is that our self-identity is merely a kind of conceptual framework. The way we perceive reality is a conceptual framework. The Yogacara school of Buddhist philosophy, for example, says that everything that exists, exists only as a process of knowing. That is, everything is just space and matter until our brains organize it into this or that, and this process of organization is in large part conceptual.
However, from this perspective, everything short of Anuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi (and good luck with that) is ideology, which renders the word ideology into mush.
The American Heritage dictionary defines ideology as
1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture. 2. A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.
So an ideology would be a set of values, perhaps, or a belief system. Let’s work with that. Now, what is “pragmatism”? Back to the dictionary —
1. Philosophy A movement consisting of varying but associated theories, originally developed by Charles S. Peirce and William James and distinguished by the doctrine that the meaning of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequences. 2. A practical, matter-of-fact way of approaching or assessing situations or of solving problems.
“The meaning of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequences.” I like that. One of my problems with current conservative ideology is that its observable practical consequences are light-years apart from its stated goals or ideals. For example, one gets the impression that conservatives think “freedom” is acquired by cutting taxes, deregulating business, and waging wars against hostile heads of state on the theory that, given the means and opportunity, those heads of state might attack us first.
However, the observable practical consequences of the Bush Administration’s tax-and-war policies are that our economy is wrecked, our military is weakened, our credibility is shot, and we’re in debt up to our eyeballs to China, which has one of the most heinously nasty governments on the planet. I contend that this is less freedom, not more freedom. Therefore, we can define “movement conservative” ideology as a plan for making America poorer, weaker, more vulnerable, and less free, since it results in limited options and puts us in the position of having to kiss China’s ass.
After several years of holding up Bush as the Conservative’s Conservative, now conservatives complain that Bush is not a “real” conservative, because he “grew” government, as in raising expenditures. However, one can argue that growing government is an observable practical consequence of movement conservatism. The truth is that Bush has been a purer Reaganite than Reagan himself. Bush has been more aggressive about cutting taxes, more favorable to business — to the point that regulatory agencies have been handed over to the industries they regulate — more opposed to regulation and oversight, more determined not to back down from fights even if they are stupid fights. Yes, federal coffers have hemorrhaged money under Bush, but that’s mostly because of war, incompetence and corruption. And the war and corruption parts, at least, go hand-in-hand with conservative “ideology.”
From this perspective, pragmatism is pursuing a course that will give you the result you want, and not-pragmatism is pursing a course that will not give you the result you want.
For example, in a response to Chris Hayes, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that “People forget that there is pragmatic, if ultimately flawed, case for torture.” However, people who have studied torture say that it gives you bad intelligence, and further, it complicates trying to get convictions for whatever the tortured people allegedly did. Thus, torture is not pragmatic at all.
And why do people do things that are not pragmatic? Because they want to.
Torture is its own end. People who want to do it, want to do it for the sheer emotional gratification of it. They won’t admit that, but it’s the truth. Torture has no pragmatic application; therefore, no honest pragmatic argument can be made for it. Genuine pragmatism is, IMO, centered in self-honesty, whereas un-pragmatic ideology is centered in self-deception.
Pragmatism is, IMO, pursuing a course of action in order to obtain an achievable result, rather than pursuing a course of action because it is emotionally gratifying. The flaw in my definition is that people are dishonest with themselves about why they do things. People who are motivated by resentment, bias or greed will nearly always throw a cloak of ideals over what’s really driving them.
For example, conservatives want to do away with regulation on the grounds that regulation is unnecessary and gets in the way of business. Regulation is unnecessary, they argue, because corporate executives would not do something, such as cheating customers or stockholders, that is detrimental to the long-term interests of the company. But the fact is that corporate executives do stupid and underhanded things all the time. Why? Because they want to. Greed trumps good business practice every bleeping day.
And many of the leaders of the Right who push deregulation and small-government ideology do so not because of “freedom,” but because they want to cash in. Whether they are able to admit that to themselves I do not know.
Let’s get back to the original contention, the conventional wisdom that the Bush Administration failed because it is too ideological, whereas the Obama Administration promises to be pragmatic. Yes, the Obama Administration, so far, promises to be relentlessly pragmatic. We see this in the way Joe Lieberman was “forgiven.” Yes, it would have been emotionally gratifying to kick Lieberman’s ass off of the Senate Homeland Security Committee chair, but to what end? Democrats are better off with Lieberman caucusing with them rather than with the Republicans, like it or not.
However, the Obama Administration also promises to be ideological, in the sense that it promises to operate within the parameters of values and ideas. We can debate what those values and ideas might be, but we can’t say there aren’t any.
The Bush Administration, on the other hand, most certainly was not pragmatic. Just look at the results.
I have argued in the past that all ideologies are wrong, because none of them are the whole truth.
I define ideology as a kind of cognitive filing system. The cosmos is an infinitely complex place, and we have very finite brains, so as we grow and learn we tend to organize input in certain ways to make sense of it. The way we learn to file depends a lot on our upbringing, the social and cultural values we absorb, our experiences, the limitations of our intelligence, etc. etc. We use cognition to interface with absolute reality, breaking the awesome absolute down into little digestible relative bits that we can comprehend, label, and file. And we all do this, unless maybe you are a superduper Einstein-level genius, and then I suspect you still do it most of the time.
I still think that’s true. However, a wise person is able to learn, adjust, and adapt his ideology to fit changing reality (or, his changing understanding of reality). A fool cannot do that; fools will continue along an obviously unwise course because their ideologies have become a cosmic security blanket, something they cling to for safety and comfort rather than consult for answers. And there’s your distinction between ideology and pragmatism.