Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition by James T. Kloppenberg

Review by Jim Mason, who says, “There’s a lot in there about philosophical pragmatism, which would be of interest to Ethical Culture.”

Stealing a form from Adam Davidson, here are the “big ideas” of this book. 1) Barack Obama has a deep and subtle understanding of late 20th Century developments in philosophy and American History. 2) Obama is a philosophical pragmatist, civic republican, and deliberative democrat.  3) Obama’s continuing quest for discussion and compromise is not a sign of weakness; it is central to his beliefs of how democracy should work.

Back in 2007-08, everybody projected their fantasies on Barack Obama.  My liberal friends in particular.  Then Obama would say something <gasp!> *centrist* and they would react in horror.  To which my reaction was: “Haven’t you been listening?”  He had always positioned himself as a centrist. (Which is why I supported Edwards in the early running; Obama’s health care plan wasn’t liberal enough for me.)

But even I got awfully exasperated during Obama’s first two years.  He didn’t seem to understand the political necessity of pushing through his program quickly, before opposition could harden.  Instead, he kept trying to win some Republicans over to some sort of compromise health care plan. My attitude morphed to, “The guy needs to grow a pair.”

Now comes a paperback reissue of Kloppenberg’s book, in which he explains all: Obama is a philosophical pragmatist.  Discussion and compromise are central to his ethics and worldview.  Kloppenberg bases this conclusion on a close reading of Obama’s books and other writings, and shows how it’s a natural consequence of the intellectual currents flowing when he was in college in the early ‘80s and law school in 1989-1992.

Kloppenberg, a Harvard professor who specializes in the history of ideas, takes us on a long tour of developments in 20th Century philosophy.  Here, I was in for a pleasant surprise.  Pragmatism, America’s greatest contribution to philosophy, has made a comeback.

I last paid attention to philosophy in the ‘80s, doing a little reading and attending some seminars.  In my (very slightly informed) opinion, philosophy peaked about 1914.  By the mid-20th century, the logical positivists were being selfish, the existentialists were elaborating the obvious (Nobody up there cares.  Deal with it!) in increasingly obscure ways, the deconstructionists were futilely trying to deny the obvious (the scientific method *is* specially privileged because it works), and everybody was trying to deny the end of epistemology (the scientific method won).

On the other hand, back in the first half of the 19th Century the Utilitarians (Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill) pushed the notion that we should work for the “greatest good for the greatest number.”  This led to significant policy changes (e.g., government taking responsibility for providing clean water and covered sewers) and new political movements (abolitionism, temperance, woman suffrage), but in the long run left the question of defining “good” open.  (Temperance?  Really?)  This became a more pressing problem as Calvinism, with its focus on individual salvation continued to weaken.

Starting in the late 19th century, the American Pragmatists (William James, Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., John Dewey) directly addressed that issue.  They faced facts, so to speak, and denied that there is any knowable ultimate truth.  Instead, we collectively determine what is good through experience and debate.  Communities of all sorts – religious organizations, voluntary associations, charities, political parties and caucuses – play a key role in forming our individual ethics and notions of good.  Then we go into the public square to argue.  Ultimately, this exceedingly messy process produces an “overlapping consensus.”  This overlapping consensus is our temporary, ever-moving definition of “good.”  The pragmatists also took the position that democracy was the political system most conducive to producing a reliable definition of “good.”  Besides guaranteeing freedom to argue and debate, democracy also prevents any one group from enforcing its will.  No matter how strongly we believe our position to be right (infallible, even!), we are forced to argue for it.  And that may strengthen our beliefs, or change them; itself a healthy process.

Kloppenberg explains that in the years following WWII, pragmatism came to be seen as hopelessly “unscientific.”  Under the influence of the new decision sciences, operations analysis, and game theory, the concept of the rational actor took over philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and (most notably) economics.  In philosophy, logical positivism (popularized by Ayn Rand) and analytics came to the fore.  Philosophers concentrated on minutely analyzing language and on coming up with a “scientific,” universal philosophy via a technical, logical process.  This universalism wasn’t all bad.  Universalist ideals, after all, were behind the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Then, starting about 1970, reaction set in.  Various strands of thought – feminism, critical race studies, class studies, deconstructionism – attacked Universalism.  They all emphasized the contingent, particular, historical roots of what is considered “good.”  Admittedly, much of this was negative commentary on “good” as defined by white male elites.  But in the process of defining their own versions of good, these critics found themselves looking back to the philosophical pragmatists for support.  By the time Obama reached law school, neopragmatism was roiling the academy and seeping into all sorts of areas, including law.

[It amuses me that, in retrospect, the analytic philosophers didn’t understand science as well as the old, muddle-headed pragmatists they rejected.  The heart of science is skepticism and a recognition that no theory is final.  That’s also the heart of philosophical pragmatism.]

Meanwhile, in history, Gordon Wood was busily redefining our view of the American Revolution.  Starting with “The Creation of the American Republic” (1969) Wood pushed what came to be known as Civic Republicanism.  The Right has long (and pretty successfully) pushed a view of the founding that emphasized individual liberties.  Wood excavated much historical evidence on the importance the founders put on civic virtue and working for the common good.  Alexis de Toqueville saw this at work in the plethora of voluntary associations he observed, which he saw as both evidence of the American genius for self-government and important to the maintenance of civil society.

Deliberative democracy is pretty much what it sounds like.  It is generally traced to Madison, who “saw the inevitable clash of competing views and called it, if not good, at least potentially productive of the public interest.”  Tocqueville “saw that individualism untempered by responsibility can ‘deteriorate into mere selfishness,’ but deliberative democracy, by engaging citizens in public life, provides an alternative that can keep alive a sense of shared purpose.”

Obama, according to Kloppenberg, studied and was heavily influenced by these emerging views.  He found pragmatism and deliberative democracy congenial, partly due to his own nature, and partly because it worked so well for him in his days as a community organizer.  As an organizer, Obama drifted away from the Saul Alinsky model of confrontation to a more collaborative model, one that recognized the central (and positive) role of black churches, which he enlisted as allies.  In his own way, he was adding a pragmatic, communitarian twist to traditional community organizing.

Kloppenberg examines Obama’s writings, including law review articles, his three books, and a little-known article he wrote in the ‘80s, “Why Organize?”  In these and in Obama’s major speeches he finds phrases and an underlying world view that support his thesis.  However, some of the evidence seems awfully indirect, such as the point of view of a Harvard Law Review article he worked on as a clerk.  Other evidence seems awfully thin.  Does calling his grandmother’s idealism “a useful fiction” really indicate Obama’s rejection of Unversalism?  Even Kloppenberg says that the reference is so fleeting and indirect that most readers would miss it.

In sum, Kloppenberg sees evidence of pragmatism, civic republicanism, and deliberative democracy in the issues of the Harvard Law Review Obama worked on, in his books and other writings, in his major speeches, in his version of community organizing, and in his political style.

I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Kloppenberg’s views of Obama.  The evidence seems a little thin and awfully indirect.  Obama’s personality and personal views remain notoriously elusive.  But it is a fascinating look at late-20th century intellectual culture.  Highly recommended.


Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.