Pragmatism, Politics, and Disagreement
Much has been made recently about Obama and his putative pragmatism - where by the latter I mean not simply opportunism but a philosophical position with political implications.* I think that that characterization of Obama is strained, at best. As an indication of why, I suggest that you watch the short clip included in this report. The clip is part of an interview that Justice Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court gave this morning with Chris Wallace at FOX News. Breyer is himself on tour, peddling a new book.** There are two issues on which Breyer seems especially astute. First, is his appreciation of the visual aspects of political ritual, in this case the annual State of the Union address. But, second and more importantly, Breyer who himself claims to be a pragmatist, stresses through out the segment the importance of diversity and disagreement. He, unlike Obama, is not all about consensus and compromise. So, while conservatives on the court took umbrage when - in a rare moment of actual progressive chutzpah (defined as audacity) - Obama criticized their Citizens United decision in last year's address, Breyer seems to welcome such disagreement as healthy. He is quite clear that while the court issues opinions in support of their decisions, the American population will - quite legitimately - challenge those opinions. So he is concerned less with forging consensus than with the basic issue of how disagreement can be structured in such a way that legislation and judicial decisions can be accepted and, hence, be effective. In raising that issue, and in recognizing the importance of robust disagreement, he makes both his colleagues on the court and Chris Wallace, the FOX interviewer - with their notion that the court is somehow due automatic deference - appear especially feeble.
* James Kloppenberg. 2010. Reading Obama ~ Dreams, Hope & the American Political Tradition. Princeton University Press.
** Stephen Breyer. 2010. Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View. Knopf.