The New Pragmatism: Coping With America's Overwhelming Problems

Learning Curve: A Tool For Problem-Solving

The U.S. needs a "New Pragmatism" to overcome the severe but solvable problems facing the nation, according to Public Agenda chairman and co-founder Daniel Yankelovich. In his Drucker Day address [see transcript of speech] at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, the social scientist examines why America's problem-solving skills have deteriorated, and lays out a new theory of the public's "learning curve" on difficult issues.

Mr. Yankelovich, a public opinion research pioneer, argues the nation's ability to effectively grapple with problems has eroded. That's primarily for cultural reasons, such as the growth of self-isolating communities, political polarization and a gap between experts and the public in how they frame issues.

In the face of these obstacles, traditional techniques like technological fixes, legislation and public relations may not work, he said. In his presentation, Mr. Yankelovich noted that pragmatism, a philosophy with deep roots in American history, focuses on action and experimentation rather than rigid ideology. In contrast, obstacles to resolving many key current public policy issues, on the other hand, often are ideological and cultural – that is, differences over core values.

Public Agenda chairman Daniel Yankelovich, seen here speaking at Claremont Graduate University, is suggesting that public opinion research – a field in which he is a pioneer – be used as a tool to learn more, and more quickly, about roadblocks preventing the resolution of difficult public policy disputes.

Those problems can themselves be fought with a cultural approach – the cultural approach of New Pragmatism, a traditional habit of American thought – which Mr. Yankelovich identifies as useful in working through difficult challenges we face today, including energy policy and dependence on foreign oil.

A New Pragmatist approach, says Mr. Yankelovich, calls for new tools to accelerate the public's "learning curve" on issues. He points out that the public goes through several stages in thinking about issues, from initial consciousness-raising to "working through" the alternatives to come to resolution.

But on complicated problems, the public's ability to get up to speed and grapple effectively with emerging problems may be too slow. Mr. Yankelovich argues that new opinion research tools are needed both to identify the obstacles to public involvement and to overcome them.

For more on the "New Pragmatism," see his PowerPoint presentation, view the streaming video of the speech, or read the transcript of the speech, given as the kickoff to the Peter Drucker centennial celebrations Nov. 8, 2008, at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont.