Progressivism is pragmatism: Obama says “the facts demand bold action.”

David Roberts reprints so many of my posts, I though I’d return the favor with one of his. I will get around to writing a long piece on this subject, but the recent piece in the Washington Post, “For Obama Cabinet, A Team of Moderates” cried out for an immediate response.

Steven Chu is a progressive environmentalist because he’s a good scientist

I’ve been reading the discussion sparked by Chris Hayes’ latest piece in The Nation — “The Pragmatist,” about Obama’s much-discussed pragmatism — with great interest. Pragmatism is a subject dear to my heart and something I studied in grad school, though the kind you study there and what goes by the name in political discussion bear little resemblance. On that note, Hayes is absolutely on point:

pragmatism requires an openness to the possibility of radical solutions. It demands a skepticism not just toward the certainties of ideologues and dogmatism but also of elite consensus and the status quo. This is a definition of pragmatism that is in almost every way the opposite of its invocation among those in the establishment. For them, pragmatism means accepting the institutional forces that severely limit innovation and boldness; it means listening to the counsel of the Wise Men; it means not rocking the boat.

I won’t rehash the whole discussion, but something relevant to Gristian subjects popped up today. Andrew Sullivan draws attention to what he calls a “great comment” over at The American Conservative, under a post by Daniel Larison. The commenter says this:

One of the best examples of Obama’s pragmatism is his appointment of Chu as energy secretary. Imagine that, and actual expert scientist in charge of energy research and development! Rather than a politician or military official or a “green” progressive environmentalist, Obama picked a guy who actually knows science. Is this being “centrist”, or is it being pragmatic in the real sense of the word.

This misses something crucial: Chu is a “green” progressive environmentalist. Read this or this and tell me he’s not. He’s a progressive environmentalist because he “actually knows science.” In other words, given the state of the world today a scientific temperament leads inexorably to progressive environmentalism. Chu says we must act boldly because circumstances, if seen clearly, demand boldness.

Obama himself put it with crystal clarity:

[Chu’s] appointment should send a signal to all that my Administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action.

This is what I’ve been trying to get at as long as I’ve been writing about Obama: he understands, in a way many of his contemporaries still do not, that we’re witnessing “a convergence between circumstances and agenda,” as he put it on Meet the Press last week. When it comes to the climate crisis, the financial crisis, or the healthcare crisis, the facts demand bold action, and that means a bias toward “variability, initiative, innovation, departure from routine, experimentation,” in pragmatist John Dewey’s words. It means activist government. Today, progressivism is pragmatism.

In this sense, Chu really does represent the essence of Obama’s approach. He’s someone with the intelligence and empiricism to see that the status quo is unacceptable and that radical change is the only sensible — pragmatic — response.

[Precisely! The same can be said about John Holdren. Or Carol Browner. Or the rest of Obama’s team.]

8 Responses to Progressivism is pragmatism: Obama says “the facts demand bold action.”

  1. Dill Weed says:


    Dill Weed

  2. Adrian says:

    As the great philosopher, S. Colbert said, “reality has a liberal bias.” It’s a point that doesn’t get made enough. TV bobble-heads appear to imagine that they need to provide counter-weights when one side speaks but when that side speaks truth, the only alternatives are lies. To do a proper job of reporting there are some events which need to be presented as fact and not as opinion and which do not deserve “balance”.

    It’s a testimony to how effective the industry propaganda has been that when people start dealing with evidence they’re labelled as activists, liberal or progressives. Hopefully we can recover some of the lost ground.

  3. If President-Elect Barack Obama and his splendid team of scientists are not able to bring about necessary change, then I do not know where we are to find such vitally needed leadership.

    In some deep sense, President-Elect Obama his new Administration are carrying the very future of children everywhere on his shoulders.

    If only we could undo the earliest years of Century XXI so that they were not filled with a colossal fool’s errand, catastrophic financial failures and ecological nightmares: an unnecessary and unjustifiable war; a collapsing economy; a human-induced, recklessly degraded environment and relentlessly dissipated planetary home.

    The challenges before the human community now appear to be daunting, that is easy enough to see; nevertheless, I believe our children will behold a good-enough future. Between now and the time our children lead the world come the necessary changes, I suppose.


    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  4. Rick says:

    warning: non harmonious viewpoint follows

    I’ll be amazed if Obama turns out to be anything more than a talking head himself. He’ll spend the next 2 and a half years talking about bold new policies without actually doing much, then he’ll spend the next year and a half running for re election saying stuff like “the time for talk is over”

    Running for office is what he does and bold policy implementation would only put re election at risk. No – he won’t do that. What he will do is talk tough and do very little and then run again on his words rather than actions.

    Unless I’m just wrong about this guy of course. But so far – all he’s ever really done was run for President and get ready to run for President. So I’m not expecting big things.

  5. hapa says:

    rick: the counter is, now, things are really falling apart. take baby steps during the recession and energy prices crush the recovery. take baby steps on energy and pollution destroys productivity. take baby steps on pollution and you get massive resource shortages. the path is narrow. “go green or go home.” whatever obama’s people do, they’re facing a problem of world war proportions and can’t skip it.

  6. coupeditor says:

    Browner’s selection is a serious fax pas for Mr. Obama. Her appointment will send a chilling message throughout Lisa Jackson’s EPA.

    From Carol Browner’s Wikipedia page:

    “During Browner’s tenure, there were many reports from African American employees of racism directed at them from a network of “good old boys” who dominated the agency’s middle management layers.[16] The most known of these involved policy specialist Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, who in 1997 filed suit against the agency; in 2000 the EPA was found guilty of discrimination against her and she was awarded $300,000.[16][17] Coleman-Adebayo said that Browner allowed the problems to persist rather than trying to clean them up: “She wasn’t at all sympathetic to complaints about civil rights abuses. We were treated like Negroes, to use a polite term. We were put in our place.”[16] In an October 2000 Congressional hearing on the matter,[18] Browner appeared near tears as she said minorities had tripled in the agency’s senior ranks during her time as administrator, but she was unable to explain why the culprits in Coleman-Adebayo’s case had not been dismissed and in some cases had been promoted.[16] A month earlier, Browner had asked for the Office of the Inspector General to linvestigate a statement by an African American environmental specialist that she had been ordered to clean a toilet in 1993 in advance of Browner’s arrival at an EPA event.[19] This followed a rally in which dozens of EPA employees protested what they saw as rampant bias at the agency.[19] Congressional dissatisfaction with the EPA situation and its treatment of Coleman-Adebayo led to passage of the No-FEAR Act in 2002, which discourages federal managers and supervisors from engaging in unlawful discrimination and retaliation.[17]”

  7. Jim Bullis says:

    Does anyone know what the science was that earned Chu the Nobel Prize?