Pragmatism, Prudence, and Progressivism

Over at NRO’s Corner last week, I offered a sermonette of sorts about what Pat Moynihan used to call “semantic infiltration,” which he described as “the process whereby we come to adopt the language of our adversaries in describing political reality.” (One smart-alecky reader wrote in to accuse me of being “anti-semantic.” Yuck, yuck.) Another example of the phenomenon is occurring in what I’ve been calling the “liberal body snatching operation” on Ronald Reagan.
The media-academic complex line on Reagan relies overwhelmingly on one idea or one term, namely, that far from being an ideologue, Reagan was a “pragmatist.” And guess who else the media mentats call a “pragmatist”? Why, Barack Obama himself. Obama’s ostensible “move to the center” following the November “shellacking” is seen as “pragmatism,” though cynics might call it more like “survival instinct.”
Pragmatism as ordinary people use the word just means practicality, and in political terms it means reaching compromises. Every successful politician makes compromises; every good politician, then, can be called a “pragmatist.” So are we really saying anything important or distinctive by calling someone a pragmatist? Yes, I think we are.
When the media-academic complex uses the term, it takes on a different hue, even though no one may be explicitly aware of it. Keep in mind that once upon a time “pragmatism” was a formal political philosophy, whose leading advocate was John Dewey, one of the pre-eminent thinkers of Progressivism. Dewey’s pragmatism was really just an Americanized version of Hegelianism, and in political terms “pragmatism” came to replace prudence as the highest attribute for a statesman, because for a pragmatist, the ends we seek to achieve no longer arise from human nature or other fixed principles, but come down to us from History, and change constantly. The job of the “pragmatic” statesman is to adjust to the changing ends prescribed by History. And if those ends happen to be egalitarian socialism, so much the better.
In other words, pragmatism masquerades as a non-ideological assault on ideology, but in fact it seeks to substitute “Progressivism” for the classical view that the limits of human nature prescribe the limits of politics, but without having to argue for it from the ground up. To call someone a “pragmatist” today is to divorce him from his ideology or any fixed principles. In Reagan’s case, calling him a pragmatist is a clever way of denigrating or downgrading his conservative principles; in the case of Obama, calling him a pragmatist is a way of concealing or denying Obama’s radical ideology. In both cases, such as Time magazine’s celebration of the Obama-Reagan “bromance,” it represents an evasion of clashing principles about government. Either way, we should regard “pragmatism” as another form of highly suspicious semantic infiltration. I’ll take the older Aristotelian idea of prudence instead. Prudence keeps the fixed ends always in sight and always on our mind.