Politics and Pragmatism

Originally published in the U.S. Intellectual History blog on May 27, 2011.

Barack Obama studied history at Occidental College, majored in political science at Columbia University, earned a law degree at Harvard University, and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Reading Obama, by James Kloppenberg, is a biography of the ideas he encountered at these institutions, then amalgamated and expressed in his books and speeches. Kloppenberg, the chair of the Harvard history department, explains the pragmatic approach to politics that marked his rise, and finds in the President firm commitments to “historicism, perspectivalism, anti-foundationalism, and philosophical pragmatism,” commitments that reflect the influence of academic intellectuals such as Cass Sunstein, John Rawls, Lawrence Tribe, Clifford Geertz, Michael Sandel, and Gordon Wood.

Reading Obama offers a steady flow of commentary on race, law, and religion, and picks out biographical facts of special interest to intellectual historians. One learns, for example, that Malia and Sasha, his daughters, attended the Lab School in Chicago, an institution founded by Alice and John Dewey; and that when Obama’s mother studied anthropology at the University of Hawaii her advisor was Alice Dewey, the philosopher’s granddaughter.

Kloppenberg’s big point is that compromise and conciliation have a moral history at odds with Clintonian “triangulation.”He describes philosophical pragmatism,the locus of the book and center of Obama’s sensibility, as a method whose value lies in its refusal to promise any particular results. It does not logically entail any particular conception of politics, but it does supply a philosophical affinity for one particular form of political practice. Just because pragmatism’s anti-metaphysical stance does not provide by itself an ethical foundation means that it can, through its rational, inter-subjective protocols of belief and communication, establish a framework for negotiating rival ethical systems into a revisable consensus—the very task of democracy in a pluralist culture.

Reading Obama, thus understood, regards the President not only as the rightful heir to a democratic sensibility, but of one particular kind of democracy—a deliberative democracy, infused with civic republicanism. As Kloppenberg writes, “Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope should be acknowledged as the most substantial books written by anyone elected president of the United States since Woodrow Wilson, who enjoyed a successful career as a political scientist before ascending to the presidency of Princeton University, then governorship of New Jersey, and finally the White House. Dreams and Hope, taken together, provide not only a window in Obama’s nuanced understanding of American history and culture but also a blue-print for American politics.” And it’s here, in the move from contextualizing Obama’s intellectual biography to proposing on its behalf “a blue-print for American politics,” that the trouble begins.

The political motive informing James Kloppenberg’s scholarship has been clear since his debut. Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920, explored with skill and sympathy social thinkers in Germany, France, England, and the United States, thinkers like Wilhelm Dilthey, Jean Jaures, Eduard Bernstein, Thomas Hill Green, Henry Sidwick, Alfred Fouillee, Max Weber, William James, and John Dewey. Then, too, Kloppenberg’s rehabilitation of pragmatism as a philosophy of “the via media” did not logically entail social democracy, but he presented an affinity with its values and procedures.

In Reading Obama, the political motive is again clear, as Kloppenberg adopts a tone of adulation toward the President and annoyance toward his critics. This time, though, he has selected a contemporary man of power who operates between the remove of large abstractions and the concrete milieu of action, and although he has much to say about the former, he has little to say about the latter. He does not analyze Obama’s political and policy decisions since his election, even though more than a year’s worth of results were available before he finished writing. At no point, moreover, does he analyze any particular political or policy decision Obama made before he became president in terms of the general sensibility he ascribes to him.

Kloppenberg, instead, positions his argument as the president has positioned himself: above the fray, beyond the two parties and their pesky partisans. “Because shrill, partisan simplifications dominate public debate, Obama’s cautious, measured approach to economic reconstruction has infuriated the Right without satisfying the Left,” he writes, as if caution itself, and not Obama’s failure to enact reconstruction sufficient to the problem, is what dissatisfies “the Left” (which, being simple and shrill, must prefer incaution). “At a time when partisans left and right vie to proclaim rival versions of certainty with greater self-righteousness, the pragmatists’ critique of absolutism and embrace of open-ended experimentation seems off-key, unsatisfying, perhaps even cowardly,” he continues, omitting the possibility, ably argued in Eric Alterman’s Kabuki Democracy: The System versus Barack Obama, that experimentalism will be ineffective until the United States adopts publicly financed elections, a ban on lobbying, changes in the rules of the Senate, and other institutional reforms that currently stand no chance.

In Uncertain Victory, Kloppenberg positioned the philosophers of “the via media” in contradistinction to the revolutionary Marxism that threatened Europe and loomed over American political society between 1870 and 1920. But there is no comparable Left movement today. The value of the beyond-left-and-right trope lies in its evasion of the political fights that remain. There are social benefits as well. To present oneself as the adult supervising quarrelsome children, as the engaged observer equidistant from the dogmas of left and right, is to bid for Serious Thinker status from Washington DC journalists such as Ross Douthat, Matthew Yglesias, Erza Klein, David Rieff, James Fallows, Andrew Sullivan, Clive Crook, and other figures on the left or right, but not in either camp. On Ivy League campuses, where a conspicuous distrust of partisan passion reflects the social fact that no professor feels any personal urgency in the outcome of policy debates, to deploy the trope is to bid for Public Intellectual status. The obligatory nod to the opposition is honored here, accordingly. “Scholars are now showing that serious ideas lay beneath the apparent anti-intellectualism of recent American conservative politicians,” Kloppenberg writes, without bothering to identify any of those “serious ideas.” Enough said.

But Kloppenberg’s diffidence costs Reading Obama plenty. The book does not offer any independent ethical arguments for civic republicanism—it has much to say about the idea of the common good, but little about its actual content—nor does it defend deliberative democracy from critics who hear in its communicative rationality a high-minded form of civic therapy. “I am sure,” wrote hedge-fund manager Daniel Loeb, in an email circulated widely on Wall Street this Spring and published last month in the Wall Street Journal, “if we are really nice and stay quiet, everything will be alright and the president will become more centrist and that all his tough talk is just words. I mean, he really loves us and when he beats us, he doesn’t mean it.” What is one to make of Mr. Loeb, a bundler of big money for the president? What does Mr. Loeb hear in Obama’s rhetoric that Kloppenberg does not?

To discuss the influences on Obama’s conception of politics without analyzing the consequences of any one of his decisions leaves one ready to agree in the abstract but bereft of criteria by which to judge the sensibility in action. Pragmatism, civic republicanism, and deliberative democracy do not exhaust the influences on President Obama. There are also his experiences as a community organizer, legislator, and civil right lawyer. Yet how can one weigh the proportions in any specific issue? Was it vulgar pragmatism or philosophical pragmatism guiding him when he broke his campaign promise and disallowed tax cuts on the rich to expire? Surely it was not his commitment to deliberative democracy that has caused him to normalize his predecessor’s program for national surveillance and outdo even him in zeal for suppressing public information, prosecuting whistleblowers, and detaining dissenters. Could it have been his civic republican fealty to the ideaof the common good that caused him to begin budget negotiations with himself, then to cede the terms of the debate to the minority opposition?

The closest Kloppenberg comes to testing his argument lies in brief comments over the President’s handling of health care: “His flexibility and his willingness to compromise infuriated some of his supporters on the left, and the refusal of his intransigent Republican opponents caused many observers to mock the president’s repeated appeals to negotiation, bipartisanship, and creative compromise. As savvy pundits left and right pointed out repeatedly, it takes two to compromise, and efforts to negotiate are futile when the other side shows no interest. But Obama’s steadfast insistence that he was open to suggestions, that he was willing to meet with his adversaries and consider their ideas, and his repeated invitations to Republicans to propose alternatives served a purpose that few commentators seemed to notice as the debate wore on. His was displaying, over and over, with a patience that outraged his allies and bewildered his foes, an iron fortitude that his critics mistook for weakness.”

The adulation is chilling. Obama’s heroic patience may have proved his pragmatist mettle, but did it serve the sick, the helpless, and the dying? Kloppenberg, citing no evidence or authority other than the centrist political scientist William Galston, offers that the resulting bill “might” be the best Obama could have gotten. Crucially, he does not attempt to show that the bill grew better as a result of Obama’s “iron fortitude.” Nor does he mention that, due to a deal cut with pharmaceutical and insurance corporations, the bill’s mandated expansion in coverage does not take effect until 2014.While uninsured Americans wait,the corporations invited to take immediate advantage of the bill’s provisions have been making record profits.

Pragmatism has been an academic movement from its inception in the nineteenth century, with all but one of its four founders enjoying successful careers as teachers and scholars in leading U.S. universities, to its contemporary revival in law, history, and literary and political theory. As formulated by John Dewey and George Mead at the University of Chicago and William James at Harvard, pragmatism also has offered itself as a public philosophy for modern America—a cultural source of ideas and ideals for democracies, a warrant for their power in history-making.

Kloppenberg writes as if one must be a cynic, an absolutist, or a materialist to reject the “blue-print for American politics” he infers from Obama’s pragmatist biography. Yet the political history of pragmatism has been riddled by doubts over its capacity to generalize itself in democratic action—a history inaugurated by Randolph Bourne during World War I; renewed in the 1930s and 1940s by Merle Curti, Walter Lippmann, Dwight Macdonald, C. Wright Mills, Lewis Mumford, and Reinhold Niebuhr; and sustained in the 1950s and 1960s by Richard Hofstadter, Christopher Lasch, Morton White, and others. Hannah Arendt, reviewing Dewey’s Problems of Men (1946), articulated a common complaint among the non-Marxist left to the effect that Dewey’s pragmatism, in particular, seemed “out of tune with reality.” Arendt, writing after the experience of fascism, marveled at “this fantastic disparity between the argumentation itself, which in an abstract sense is always right, and the basis of experience, which in its historical actuality is always wrong,” and sought to explain the disparity “in the light of Dewey’s central concept, which is not a concept of Man but a concept of Science.”

The contemporary revival of pragmatism has been marked by similar doubts.Critical studies and essays such as John Patrick Diggins’s The Promise of Pragmatism (1994) and Alan Wolfe’s “The Missing Pragmatic Revival in American Social Science” (1998) have focused attention on the absence of empirical studies of social and political institutions on the part of pragmatists. But many sympathetic studies—William Caspary’s Dewey on Democracy (1991), Andrew Feffer’s The Chicago Pragmatists and American Progressivism (1993), James Campbell’s Understanding John Dewey (1995), Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club (2001), Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989), Alan Ryan’s John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (1995)—have acknowledged its limitations as well. Hans Joas’s Pragmatism and Social Theory (1993) notes that although Dewey had hoped, and often expected, his conception of philosophy to support a democratic social order, “the actual importance of this type of social order in modern societies poses one of the main problems of pragmatism’s political philosophy and of the sociology based on that philosophy.” In G.H. Mead: A Contemporary Re-examination of his Thought (1997) Joas observes that the founders of pragmatism left a gap between their philosophy and social reality, the same gap that appears in Reading Obama. “I am convinced that the pragmatists tended to neglect those important forms of political and sociological analysis that lie between abstractly universal statements about the origins of human communication, on the one hand, and overly concrete comments about the social conflicts of the day, on the other.”

Kloppenberg is most convincing when he shows Obama deploying his empathetic intelligence to resolve conflicts at places like Harvard Law School and the Saguaro Seminar, a dialogue on civic trust convened in 1995 by political scientist Robert Putnam. In these social contexts, a rough consensus on the underlying value of compromise was a condition of participation. Do Obama’s negotiating partners in politics share this underlying value? This question, belittled by Kloppenberg as the anxiety of the unsophisticated, lies, in fact, at the heart of pragmatism in politics. “As Dewey acknowledged,” Robert Westbrook writes in John Dewey and American Democracy (1991), “if social reform was to be as rational, relatively conflict-free, and nonrevolutionary as he suggested it could be, the criteria of the acts of judging at the heart of such reform had to be shared by all the groups in a society, especially those at odds with one another. A widespread consensus on the values of associated living was one of the ‘laboratory conditions’ for experimental reform.” Such reform rested on an “ethical postulate of which many remained unpersuaded, an axiom that masters in particular could not be presumed to accept.”

Kloppenberg himself has doubts. He finds in the President’s economic policies “reason for concern,” calls “murky” the process by which he might bring progressive values to bear on the social problem of inequality, and wonders whether he has “now been yanked by the chain of power back from the commitment to economic democracy proclaimed in The Audacity of Hope.” In such passages, however, Kloppenberg adopts the pragmatist habit of deferring questions of power to the future. He brackets his concerns with airy qualifiers such as “too soon to say” and “not yet clear” and “only the historical record will show.” Meanwhile, he thinks, the rest of us have an urgent responsibility to give the President a break. “As the case of slavery shows,” Kloppenberg writes, “democratic compromise is not always possible. But Americans, including those who malign Obama’s efforts to resolve rather than intensify conflict, should never forget the cost of its failure.” In fact, the political value of this admonition—in a time when there is zero threat of civil war—is to reinforce the status quo. The President himself has urged his supporters to hold him accountable to the principles and promises he voiced during the election.

As Kloppenberg argues for a politics of reason that insists on the potential for negotiation with conservatives, conservatives turn inward toward a tradition that emerged early in the twentieth century as an alternative to pragmatist conceptions of history, law, politics, and human nature. In this tradition,unconscious emotional drives were thought to belie the image of the rational citizen handed down by democratic theorists. Studies of propaganda in the Great War taught journalists, publicists, and social and political scientists—Charles E. Merriam, Elton Mayo, Thurman Arnold, Walter Lippmann—to distrust the ethical force of public opinion and to deny the educative value of politics. Successful politicians tapped into the collective unconscious of voters, controlling their perceptions. Power was a game played out in folk rituals, images, and slogans, in misinformation campaigns, and in the subliminal stimulation sneaked into advertisements for “The American Dream,” a phrase that first circulated in this period.

Ever since, books and essays such as Harold Lasswell’s Psychopathology and Politics (1930), Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964), and Garry Wills’s The Kennedy Imprisonment (1982) have pointed attention to the unconscious of movements and leaders. Sigmund Freud and William Bullitt’s Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1966) explored the “tendency to nervous breakdown” by the chief executive, a subject all too germane in the nuclear age. Richard Nixon’s breakdown in the seventies generated a vogue for psycho-biography that shows up today in titles such as Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy (2008), where the drama of power plays out in the guise of the family romance, and Dan McAdams’s George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream: A Psychological Portrait (2011).

“Was it all just a dream?” Michael Moore asked in “Fahrenheit 9/11,” his farce of George Bush’s first term. By the end of the second, a sense of absurdity, a feeling that American had fallen into the hands of a claque that refused to acknowledge the results of logic and evidence, had become a general theme voiced by many observers. The image of the bewildered public invigilated popular history such as The Age of American Unreason (2008), by Susan Jacoby, and Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter (2008), by Rick Shenkman. Just as historians and journalists documented public ignorance that was absurd for a society that makes schooling compulsory, so the incorrigible irrationality of the citizen was ostensibly proved by the empirical science of mass politics. George Lakoff’s The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain (2008), Drew Westen’s The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (2008) and many other studies cast doubt on the possibility of the deliberative public that Kloppenberg’s “blue-print” takes for granted.

Even moderate conservatives are turning to this alternative tradition, as David Brooks suggests in his synthesis of neurobiology, The Social Animal (2011). “We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness,” Brooks writes. “The unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind—where most of the decisions and many of the most impressive acts of thinking take place.” For direct evidence of incommensurability, look no farther than conservative views of Obama’s intellectual biography. Kloppenberg reads Obama and equips him with a birth certificate stamped all over with the impress of U.S. thought and institutions. In The Roots of Obama’s Rage (2010), Dinesh D’Souza reads the curriculum at Punahou Academy, the private school that Obama attended in Hawaii, and lashes books like Gavan Daws’s Shoal of Time and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee willy-nilly to an irrational emotional psychology of anti-colonialism. Kloppenberg links biographical facts and anecdotes with books, schools, and movements of ideas, building an interpretation that shows how Obama reformulated his cultural inheritance. D’Souza attributes influence to a “near-magical” process of unconscious transmission. Kloppenberg leads us to analyze politics in terms of interests and ideology, with corruption and extremism lying dangerously ahead, and mass democracy as the ideal. D’Souza leads us into its fantasies, myths, and pathologies.

James Kloppenberg has written a substantial book with a serious limitation, serious because the suave unfolding of the argument depends on his refusal to test it. President Obama is the product of democracy, and his pragmatic writings and speeches do suggest a sophisticated understanding of how the American experiment was designed. But his conservative opposition is also the product of democracy; and the country was not designed for plutocracy. Reading Obama begs the question of whether an intellectual educated in the self-image of our wealthiest universities can become the fighting liberal the rest of us need.