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Preface Throughout his 2008 campaign and into the early months of his presidency, Barack Obama was both praised and condemned on various grounds for his professed “pragmatism.” So my whole goal over the next four years is to make sure that whatever arguments are persuasive [are] backed up by evidence and facts and proof that they can work, that we are pulling people together around that kind of pragmatic agenda. (Obama 2009) Just the fact that a U.S. president would claim to be a pragmatist calls attention to the importance of the question of what pragmatism is. Any U.S. president, Obama or otherwise, perhaps should indeed be a pragmatist, in some sense of that term. Such a claim is worthless, though, if we do not know what it means to make it. It is worse than worthless when, for whatever purpose, the meanings of the terms ‘pragmatist’, ‘pragmatism’, and ‘pragmatic’ are so distorted or misused as to promote rather than dispel confusion. The latter point assumes, of course, that we might know how to use those terms properly. So how do we do that? What is pragmatism? There are numerous possibilities if we can believe what we read in the political news media. For instance, a common view seems to be that to profess pragmatism simply means that one would avoid dogmatic ideology for its own sake in favor of commonsense post-partisan (pluralistic) practicality (Berkowitz 2009; Bronsther 2009; CBS News 2012; Cohen 2010; Critchley 2008; Dionne 2009a;b; Goldberg 2010; Gordon 2009; Hamburger and Wallsten 2009; Hayes 2008; Lerner 2009; Lim 2009; Lizza 2007; Lowry 2009; Packer 2008; Payne 2008; Rivas 2009; Salam 2008; Schultz 2009; Sunstein 2008; Worsnip 2012; Zelizer 2012). In one form or another, this is apparently at least part of what Obama means by it (as in wanting to be “pulling people together around [a] pragmatic agenda”). It is also common to think that pragmatism means that policy decisions are to be made on the basis of what works—on the basis of what is effective in getting things done (Aboulafia 2009d; Hayes 2008; Ignatius 2007; Koopman 2009; Kroft 2008; Lowry 2009; Schultz 2009; Worsnip 2012; Wickham 2008). This also ix x / PREFACE comes through in some of Obama’s statements, including the preceding quote (Obama 2009). To some the latter characterization suggests an emphasis on means, not ends— that is, a focus on instituting effective means to achieve given ends (Reich 2009). To others it entails a problem-oriented focus on ends, consequences, results, as the measure of what works (Hayes 2008; Kantor 2009). An emphasis on “results” may suggest a kind of data-driven evidence-based empiricism (Dionne 2009a; Engel 2002; Payne 2008; Revesz and Livermore 2009; Sunstein 2002; 2008), while others would deny such a suggestion if empiricism simply means an exclusive emphasis on the techniques of game theory, decision theory, risk assessment, or cost-benefit analysis (Acronym Required 2010; CPR 2008; Mooney 2009; Shapiro and Schroeder 2008). Either way, empiricism does not preclude a concern only for what works to successfully promote preconceived favored agendas or partisan causes (Berkowitz 2009; Gerson 2009). Or is pragmatism simply a kind of anti-intellectual practicality (Bronsther 2009)? It might be worse than that. To some, any emphasis on “what works” may signify only a concern for expediency at the expense of principle (Hayes 2008), often as if principle and expediency exclude one another—a matter made all the worse if it is only self-serving vote-winning political expediency at issue. This often seems to be what real-world politics is ultimately about—the pragmatist being one who readily accepts this fact and strategizes accordingly (saying or doing whatever one must, rational or not) for political advantage (Aboulafia 2009b;c; Dionne 2009b; Lim 2009; Lizza 2007; Packer 2009; Smith 2008; Weisberg 2009). Obstructionist tactics designed by one faction solely to prevent or undermine an opponent faction’s successes are labeled as “pragmatic” if not “pragmatist” in this latter sense. This may suggest to some an ethical and philosophical emptiness and, thus, a lack of moral leadership (Aboulafia 2008; Bronsther 2009; Critchley 2008; Gerson 2009; Goldberg 2010; Packer 2009; Reich 2009; Worsnip 2012). Pragmatism in this sense “takes our hope away and tells us that all we can do is muddle through” (Fish 2010). On the other hand, pragmatism to some means open-mindedness, epistemological modesty, an appreciation of human fallibility, and prudent flexibility in solving problems—versus dogmatic adherence come what may...


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