Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The False Dichotomy Between "Idealism" and "Pragmatism" in Present Critiques of President Obama's Performance



Many of the ongoing political and ideological debates over the direction of domestic and foreign policy in the Obama administration are distorted by a curious tendency to act as though any genuine and substantive criticism of the president and his administration from the left is somehow being "disloyal" to the president's assumed agenda. The following article by Darren Hutchinson, a law professor at American University, Washington College of Law, goes a long way toward refuting this canard by properly focusing on the shibboleth that to criticize Obama is to engage in the notion that to do so is to be a mere idealist as opposed to a hard-headed and more efficient pragmatist. We see widespread evidence of this false dichotomy in many critical debates about the president and his administration's policies -- so much so in fact that genuine political and ideological criticism of the inadequacies, weaknesses, or shortcomings of his current agenda are seriously obscured by the dubious assumptions governing how many view Obama's actual stances on various issues. What Hutchinson provides us with is thankfully a wider and deeper appreciation of both the necessity for mature political criticism and a real social engagement of active citizens who wish not only to impact the direction of the country but who will not be deterred by the personal desires and priorities of Obama's presidency. What we must all remember as we continue to make this critical engagement with the government is that what's most important is creating a space for real political, economic, and social change that is not subservient ultimately to any single politician's careerist ambitions -- including those of President Obama.


Professor Darren Hutchinson

President Obama's defenders in media often describe him as a "pragmatist." Although these journalists usually do not define the term, it seems that they wish to imply that Obama can set aside his ideological commitments in order to deliver concrete results to his constituents. By contrast, many commentators portray Obama's progressive critics as people who place ideology above tangible results and who refuse to compromise and accept the incremental advancement of their overall political agenda.

Mainstream media outlets barely do a decent job reporting the news. Their attempt at political science is absolutely atrocious.

The Assumption That Obama Is a Progressive

When commentators describe Obama as a pragmatist, they assume that he is a progressive who compromises to achieve practical benefits. It is unclear, however, that Obama is actually a progressive.

Although Obama became the darling of the political Left during the Democratic primaries, he never really embraced policies that were more progressive than other mainstream Democratic presidential contenders. Nevertheless, the Left was so desperate to replace President Bush and to avoid the "triangulation" of the Clinton era that it easily accepted Obama's progressive narrative. Obama also benefited from an adoring media, which failed to raise tough questions about his progressive credentials and which often rushed to denounce his critics.

After he secured the Democratic nomination, President Obama started moving more overtly to the center. Many progressives accepted this "transformation" as a necessary element of a national political campaign. But long before he won the election or even the Democratic nomination, progressives had enough reasons to question Obama's liberal credentials. Obama, for example, criticized a Supreme Court ruling that reaffirmed prior caselaw forbidding the death penalty in rape cases. He also praised a conservative Court ruling that found an individual right to bear arms and which invalidated a Washington, DC gun law. Obama also voted to renew the Patriot Act and, betraying a campaign promise, to extend immunity to telecoms that conducted unlawful surveillance on behalf of the Bush Administration. Citing his own religious views, Obama stated that he did not agree with same-sex marriage. And while the antiwar Left certainly preferred Obama to Hillary Clinton, Obama, like Clinton, said that he viewed the war in Afghanistan as a "just" war.

Although journalists often portray Obama as a pragmatic progressive who can prioritize concrete outcomes over his own ideological commitments, another narrative is also highly plausible. Obama is a political centrist who is in fact pursuing his own ideological commitments -- even if this means discarding the interests of liberals who were instrumental to his political success. This narrative, however, does not sound nearly as laudatory and self-sacrificing as the pragmatism rhetoric. It is, however, a perfectly logical take on Obama's political orientation.

Even if Obama is a progressive, he could compromise his ideological values in order to maximize his opportunity for reelection. If this is the reason for Obama's "pragmatism," then it is unclear that voters -- and certainly liberal voters -- should laud his careful effort to tread the center and to compromise with conservatives.

The Assumption That Obama's Progressive Critics Are Not Pragmatic
Commentators who laud Obama as a pragmatist almost uniformly condemn his progressive critics as ideological and impractical. Unlike Obama, who is a good, pragmatic progressive, liberals who criticize the President are politically inflexible ideologues whose rigidity, if widely followed, would preclude the implementation of helpful policies.

This juxtaposition of Obama (good, pragmatic) and his progressive critics (impractical, ideologues) has occurred most recently in debates surrounding healthcare reform. After the White House instructed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to delete the public plan and Medicare buy-in from the healthcare bill, liberals criticized Obama for betraying his campaign promises and for watering-down the measure. The White House responded by calling Obama's liberal critics "irrational" and "insane." Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic argued that they are privileged white college graduates who need not worry about the practical implications of their positions. These arguments are deeply flawed.

Brownstein's racial analysis is simply another bizarre manifestation of the notion that criticizing Obama -- even from a progressive perspective -- inevitably comes from a racial place. This argument is old, tired, and should be retired.

With respect to the point about pragmatism, depending upon the goals of progressives, criticizing Obama could operate as a highly pragmatic political tactic. President Obama has several items on his agenda -- including reelection. These goals, however, might cause him to act in a way that is inconsistent with progressive political agendas. Progressives can only influence Obama and other elected Democrats if they express their discontent. If they can also reveal that Obama is betraying his liberal base, then they can possibly make him more vulnerable from a political perspective. In order to cure or avoid this vulnerability, Obama may have to act in a way that addresses the concerns of progressives. If progressives never complain or engage in advocacy or mobilization, then politicians will have very few incentives to address their concerns.

By criticizing Obama, progressives are modeling the behavior of social movement participants as diverse as the abolitionists, suffragists, civil rights advocates, feminists, and proponents of GLBT rights. Progressive movements have never achieved their goals by peacefully acquiescing to the will of politicians. While successful progressive movements have undoubtedly made and accepted compromises, they have also condemned politicians -- even sympathetic politicians -- when doing so was appropriate. The election of Obama does not provide a reasonable basis for abandoning this tried and tested historical approach to social change.

Professor Darren Hutchinson teaches Constitutional Law, Critical Race Theory, Law and Social Change, and Equal Protection Theory at the American University, Washington College of Law. Professor Hutchinson received a B.A., cum laude, from the University of Pennsylvania and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Professor Hutchinson has written extensively on issues related to the intersection of antidiscrimination law, social movements, and identity theory. His articles have appeared in several journals including the Cornell Law Review, Washington University Law Review, UCLA Law Review, Illinois Law Review, Michigan Journal of Race and Law, and the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law. Professor Hutchinson also authors Dissenting Justice -- a blog related to law and politics. Professor Hutchinson has participated in workshops and conferences at many universities, including Yale, Stanford, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell, and Georgetown. Before joining the American University faculty, Professor Hutchinson was an Associate Professor at Southern Methodist University School of Law.



Once again Bob Herbert hones in on the real issues and problems facing American society today and what needs to be done about them. An excellent, insightful, and very accurate article...



An Uneasy Feeling

New York Times
January 4, 2010

I’m starting the new year with the sinking feeling that important opportunities are slipping from the nation’s grasp. Our collective consciousness tends to obsess indiscriminately over one or two issues — the would-be bomber on the flight into Detroit, the Tiger Woods saga — while enormous problems that should be engaged get short shrift.

Bob Herbert

Staggering numbers of Americans are still unemployed and nearly a quarter of all homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. Forget the false hope of modestly improving monthly job numbers. The real story right now is the entrenched suffering (with no end in sight) that has been inflicted on scores of millions of working Americans by the Great Recession and the misguided economic policies that preceded it.

As The Washington Post reported over the weekend, the entire past decade “was the worst for the U.S. economy in modern times.” There was no net job creation — none — between December 1999 and now. None!

The Post article read like a lament, a longing for the U.S. as we’d once known it: “No previous decade going back to the 1940s had job growth of less than 20 percent.”

Middle-class families in 2008 actually earned less, adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1999. The data for 2009 are not yet in, but you can just imagine what happened to those families in that nightmarish downturn. Small children over the holidays were asking Santa Claus to bring mommy or daddy a job.

One in eight Americans, and one in four children, are on food stamps. Some six million Americans, according to an article in The Times on Sunday, have said that food stamps were their only income.

This is a society in deep, deep trouble and the fixes currently in the works are in no way adequate to the enormous challenges we’re facing. For example, an end to the mantra of monthly job losses would undoubtedly be welcomed. But even if the economy manages to create a few hundred thousand new jobs a month, it would do little to haul us from the unemployment pit dug for us by the Great Recession. We need to create more than 10 million new jobs just to get us back to where we were when the recession began in December 2007.

What’s needed are big new innovative efforts to fashion an economy that creates jobs for all who want and need to work. Just getting us back in fits and starts over the next few years to where we were when the recession began should not be acceptable to anyone. We should be moving now to invest aggressively in a new, greener economy, leading the world in the development of alternative fuels, advanced transportation networks and the effort to restrain the poisoning of the planet. We should be developing an industrial policy that emphasizes the need for America to regain its manufacturing mojo, as tough as that might seem, and we need to rebuild our infrastructure.

We’re not smart as a nation. We don’t learn from the past, and we don’t plan for the future. We’ve spent a year turning ourselves inside out with arguments of every sort over health care reform only to come up with a bloated, Rube Goldberg legislative mess that protects the insurance and drug industries and does not rein in runaway health care costs.

The politicians will be back soon, trust me, screaming about the need to rein in health costs.

We keep talking about how essential it is to radically improve public education while, at the same time, we’re closing libraries and firing teachers by the tens of thousands for economic reasons.

The fault lies everywhere. The president, the Congress, the news media and the public are all to blame. Shared sacrifice is not part of anyone’s program. Politicians can’t seem to tell the difference between wasteful spending and investments in a more sustainable future. Any talk of raising taxes is considered blasphemous, but there is a constant din of empty yapping about controlling budget deficits.

Oh, yes, and we’re fighting two wars.

If America can’t change, then the current state of decline is bound to continue. You can’t have a healthy economy with so many millions of people out of work, and there is no plan now that would result in the creation of millions of new jobs any time soon.

Voters were primed at the beginning of the Obama administration for fundamental changes that would have altered the trajectory of American life for the better. Politicians of all stripes, many of them catering to the nation’s moneyed interests, fouled that up to a fare-thee-well.

Now we’re escalating in Afghanistan, falling back into panic mode over an attempted act of terror and squandering a golden opportunity to build a better society.