Understanding his presidency requires an appreciation of the difference between "non-ideological" and "pragmatic"
Now that President Obama has been in office for over a year and a half — during which time he’s governed in more or less exactly the fashion his 2008 campaign promised — you might think it would be difficult to fill column inches with yet another article rehashing the campaign narrative of Obama as an inscrutable man of mystery. God bless Politico, then, for making it look so easy.
Their latest attempt, Monday morning’s “Dems urge Obama to take a stand,” asks: “What is Obama’s philosophy?” That no one can provide a clear answer to the question tells us absolutely nothing about the president, and everything we need to know about the question itself. It is so vague as to be completely meaningless. Obama’s philosophy of what?
Writing on Jon Chait’s blog at the New Republic, Noam Scheiber clarifies the matter by drawing a much-needed distinction between the president’s approach to process and his preferences on matters of policy. Sadly, while he properly delineates the question, he misses half of the answer.
“It’s true that Obama often spoke in transformational terms about the practice of politics,” Scheiber writes. “But if you listened to the way he and his campaign discussed policy, it was always clear that they preferred a relatively pragmatic, non-ideological approach to some sweeping progressive vision.”
The offending word here is “non-ideological.” This isn’t the first time someone has used that term to characterize either Obama or his team: Scheiber did it himself in 2008′s “The Audacity of Data,” and others have pointed to the president’s supposed lack of ideology as both one of his greatest strengths and one of his fatal weaknesses.
But to describe anyone as non-ideological is nonsense. Data is non-ideological. Inanimate objects are non-ideological. People, however, are ideological creatures.
After reading Scheiber’s 2008 article, it seems clear that his error lies in using the term “non-ideological” interchangeably with “pragmatic.” But as Robert Reich pointed out in a 2009 blog post on the subject of Obama’s pragmatism: “Being a pragmatist is a statement about means, not ends. It describes someone who chooses the most practical way of achieving a certain goal but it does not explain why he chooses one goal over another.”
This isn’t just a matter of semantics. When Scheiber and others describe their position as “non-ideological,” it’s a way — conscious or not — of insulating that position from philosophical inquiry. If a statement isn’t ideological, then it is either factually true or it isn’t, and that makes evaluating it a lot more manageable.
Sadly, that’s not how normative claims work. Any policy proposal is normative in nature — that’s why they call it a proposal. As Michael Sandel has convincingly argued in his lectures at Harvard, you simply can’t divorce your policy preferences from your (very much ideological) moral intuitions. You can only pretend to divorce them, and, in doing so, ignore one of the most important steps in evaluating a policy proposal: the very first one.
This is why we have political philosophy. In “The Audacity of Data,” Scheiber wrote: “You’d be hard-pressed to find a political philosopher in Obama’s inner wonk-dom,” a sentence sure to make self-described non-ideological pragmatists shiver with pleasure. But here, again, he’s not exactly correct. True, there are no academic philosophers in Obama’s circle of advisers — no Michael Sandels, or even Peter Singers — but the president himself is a philosopher of the amateur, non-academic variety. As the New York Times reported in 2008, Obama has studied — and, evidently, developed an affinity for—the works of the great continental philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre (which, incidentally, makes me think that if the smear artists who accuse Obama of being a covert Muslim knew their history of philosophy, they would be accusing him of covert atheism instead). Whether you agree with his moral intuition, he is a man who has thought hard about them. In Chapter 6 of “The Audacity of Hope,” he even took other progressives to task for avoiding public debate over ethical principles.
We should follow his lead. Scheiber is right to applaud Obama for carefully considering empirical data, but we should not fetishize empiricism as if it answers the only questions truly worth asking. Earlier, I called the president an amateur political philosopher. Anyone else who hopes to talk about the “right” policy must first grapple with what “right” is, and, in doing so, become an amateur political philosopher as well.
Ned Resnikoff is a freelance writer and researcher for Media Matters for America. The opinions expressed above are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of MMFA. More Ned Resnikoff.
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Two-for-one for Everyone — West Wind Solano Twin Drive-In, Concord, Calif. This family-friendly attraction with several spots across the U.S. (including California, Nevada and Arizona) prides itself on offering first-run double features (save for premiere events) on the cheap — which is quite the deal, considering their 65-foot screens are among the biggest in the biz. And if you have great car speakers, even better: squawk boxes of old have been replaced with Dolby quality audio piped through your car’s FM stereo.
For the Four-legged Friendly — Warwick Drive-In, Warwick, N.Y. Northeast city slickers looking for a place to watch their favorite movie stars under the stars need only veer six miles east of Vernon, N.J. What began as a family affair in 1950 has since become a seasonal institution offering rural and urban (and pet!) audiences two movies for the price of one on any of its three giant screens.
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See Stars Collide — Ford-Wyoming Drive-In, Dearborn, Mich. Open year-round (unlike many of its surviving contemporaries), this five-screen staple of the Midwest known as the “largest drive-in in the world” plays host for up to 3,000 cars on any given night. And if the double-feature doesn’t hold your attention, relax; you’ve got the best (car)seat in the house for the occasional overhead meteor shower.
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A Hole (Lot of Fun) in One — Wellfleet Drive-In, Wellfleet, Mass.Built in 1957 and still offering original mono sound boxes for those looking for an authentic experience (or not, as FM stereo is available as well), the summer-exclusive theater hosts double features of first-runs on its giant 100’ x 44’ screen. Come for the movies, stay for the mini-golf and flea market (on select days).
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Go Big or Drive Home — Bengies Drive-In, Baltimore, Md. The only thing bigger than Bengies’ prolific history (57 years and going) is its main attraction — boasting the biggest theater screen in the U.S. at 6,240 square feet. That’s 52’ x 120’ of pure anamorphic presentation. Complementing its time capsule of a snack bar (unchanged since ’56), previews old and new occupy the venue’s old-timey intermissions between features.
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Proof That Film is Forever — Shankweilers, Orefield, Pa. While we’re on superlative street, consider stopping at this roadside treasure: America’s oldest drive-in. Operating since 1934, it may not have the frills and pony rides of nearby Becky’s Drive-In, but it’s defied hurricanes and the wear and tear of time. Worth the one-hour drive from Philly.
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The Gritty Hollywood Reboot — Corral Drive-In, Guymon, Okla. Like a slasher movie menace that died (several times) in the ’80s only to be rebooted years after, the long-vacant Corral Drive-In was resurrected and restored in 2009, providing big entertainment at a nominal fee. And if the $6 adult admission doesn’t make you feel like a kid again, the venue’s inflatable bouncers most definitely will.
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Hop the Healthy Highway — Delsea Drive-In, Vineland, N.J. Less than an hour’s trip from Atlantic City, New Jersey’s only drive-in offers the best of both worlds — old school aesthetic outfitted with modern tech and healthier food choices to boot. Open seasonally, with first features beginning around dusk.
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Bring Your Backyard to the Big Screen — Starlight Six Drive-In, Atlanta, Ga. As much a backdoor barbecue as it is a night out at the movies, this six-screen Atlanta drive-in encourages what most in the theater biz forbid: bringing your own food and grilling it. Those looking to add a hip twist of the theatrical to their Labor Day getaway need only stock the cooler and pack some brats or burgers for the Starlight’s annual “Drive-Invasion,” which features a hot-rod show, live music, and B-movies galore.
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And really, what better way is there to cruise the nostalgia highway of old Hollywood than in a MINI Roadster? Allowing all the headroom one needs to see the stars on the screen and those directly above, the 2013 convertible goes the distance where it counts — on the road (obviously), not to mention the discerning driver’s wallet. Never mind that its fun-size frame also makes motoring in and out of tight traffic all the more enjoyable (or parking in even tighter spots for cozy romantics all the more convenient).
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