As New York Times reporter Peter Baker put it, “Polling by Gallup shows that since June 2009, in the heyday of the new Obama presidency, public confidence in virtually every major institution of American life has fallen, including organized religion, the military, the Supreme Court, public schools, newspapers, Congress, television news, the police, the presidency, the medical system, the criminal justice system and small business.”
In other words, the ties that bind have never been weaker, preparing the way for societal collapse in the case of a destabilizing event, like a depression. Weakening the civil society ripens a people for choosing for themselves a ruthless leader to reestablish order, no matter how arbitrary or dictatorial.
Authoritative voices on the left led us to expect something altogether different. And no voice raised expectations more authoritatively than that of distinguished Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein, who served from 2009 to 2012 as head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (and is married to U.S. United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power).
In January 2008, Sunstein—then a University of Chicago law professor and an informal adviser to the Obama campaign—explained in the New Republic that Obama was a “visionary minimalist.” As president, Obama would “listen to” and “learn from” people with whom he disagreed. The candidate was committed to the belief, according to Sunstein, that “real change usually requires consensus, learning, and accommodation.” Obama was “unifying” because “he always sees, almost always respects, and not infrequently accepts” the “deepest commitments” of “independents and Republicans.”
In a September follow-up, Sunstein maintained that although progressive in outlook, Obama was not a “doctrinaire liberal.” Sunstein portrayed a politician who “prefers solutions that can be accepted by people with a wide variety of theoretical inclinations.” The senator from Illinois “attempts to accommodate, rather than to repudiate, the defining beliefs of most Americans,” Sunstein asserted. “Above all, Obama’s form of pragmatism is heavily empirical; he wants to know what will work.”
To illustrate the Democratic nominee’s distinctively non-doctrinaire, accommodating, and empirically oriented pragmatism, Sunstein offered Obama's health care plan. Obama “would not require adults to purchase health insurance,” Sunstein assured. Instead, his goal “is to make health care available, not to force people to buy it—a judgment that reflects Obama’s commitment to freedom of choice, his pragmatic nature (an enforcement question: Would those without health care be fined or jailed?), and his desire to produce a plan that might actually obtain a consensus.”
The health care legislation that Obama proudly signed into law in March 2010 was the antithesis of Sunstein's campaign-trail reveries. The Affordable Care Act represented the most partisan legislative package that then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could ram through the two Democratic-controlled chambers. It required all adults to purchase health insurance. Instead of cultivating consensus to win passage of a plan that also respected conservative concerns, the president chose to demonize Republicans.
The public noted the president’s high-handed ways and, eight months later in the 2010 midterm elections, returned its verdict. A historic 63-seat gain put Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives, with the power to exercise congressional oversight of the executive branch and to oppose efforts by the Obama-led Democratic Party to increase the size and scope of government.
On the left, one common explanation of what went wrong for Obama is that it was the Republicans’ fault. Nasty and brutish know-nothing conservatives were determined to foil the president at every step and at any cost. But that explanation won’t wash, and not only because it is false: From the early days of Obama’s presidency, Republican leaders such as Reps. Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan demonstrated their willingness to share ideas with the president and consider options. It was Obama who quickly made clear that since he had won it would be his way or the highway.
To be sure, the president invited Republicans, who have been known on occasion to be obstreperous, to his table. But they were only welcome to remain provided that they embraced his policies. Obama was pragmatic or flexible about the means to achieving progressive ends but thoroughly partisan about the ends themselves.
It’s not that Obama fell short of the ideal pragmatist Sunstein celebrated. Rather, Sunstein mis-described the brand of pragmatism Obama embodies. Whereas pragmatism purports to set aside ideology, Obama postures as a pragmatist to disguise his ideology. In particular, his pragmatism celebrates conciliatoriness and downplays partisanship to distract attention from the ruthless pursuit of progressive goals.
“Mis-described,” or lied? Obama promised fundamental transformation to the secular masses ready to crown government as the great liberator of souls from the world’s condemnation. No part of that suggests working within the constitutional framework and traditions of his predecessors.
Obama’s political pragmatism follows the deception inscribed in the original philosophical pragmatism of Charles Pierce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), and John Dewey (1859-1952). Pragmatists emphasize experience, the fallibility of knowledge, and the need to test empirically our opinions and revise them in light of their practical consequences. They reject the quest for absolute certainty and instead embrace methods of inquiry that yield incremental advances in understanding.
So far so good.
But the philosophical pragmatists took a good thing too far. They sought to dissolve metaphysical disputes that had divided philosophers since the days of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. What appeared to philosophers and theologians—and to multitudes of ordinary men and women—to be hard but vital questions about ultimate principles, were really, the pragmatists asserted, only questions about the “expedient,” or about how ideas work in practice.
Think of it as the technization of government, to paraphrase Berdyaev. The organization of society cannot be boiled down to a formula, no matter how complex. Human nature refuses to be corralled that way. The distinguishing trait of humanity, the unquantifiable spirit, the unpredictability, doesn’t factor in the model. It doesn’t factor at all. Insofar as the model succeeds, the inorganic singularity corrodes humanity, opposite of enabling it, seeding the model’s demise.