01/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Progressivism Is Pragmatism: Steven Chu at Department of Energy

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 my own bailiwick popped up the other day. 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.