An Unlikely Pragmatist

An Unlikely Pragmatist

Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition
by James T. Kloppenberg
Princeton University Press, 2010, 296 pp.

TOWARD THE end of James Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama, the author ponders an anecdote from the candidate’s speech on race in Philadelphia in March 2008: Obama reported that a young white woman named Ashley, telling fellow volunteers in South Carolina why she’d joined the Obama campaign, explained that to save money for her cancer-stricken, bankrupted mother, she’d pretended to love mustard and relish sandwiches. She was volunteering, she said, in hopes of improving health care for families like hers. When an elderly black man’s turn came to tell why he’d joined, he said, simply, “’I am here because of Ashley,’” and Obama told his Philadelphia audience that “That single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is where we start.” But it’s only a start, especially for Kloppenberg, who writes, “Placing the speech in the context drawn from civic republicanism and communitarianism, from discourse ethics and deliberative democracy, from historicism and Rawls’ overlapping consensus, from Geertz’s hermeneutics and the neopragmatists’ emphasis on fallibilism, it is easy to see in the speech most of the principal components of Obama’s worldview.”

Well, maybe not so easy: Kloppenberg presents these “principal components” more than a little confusingly. On the one hand, “To a striking degree,” he claims, Obama’s “sensibility has been shaped by the developments in American academic culture since the 1960s… and…I want to demonstrate that under-appreciated connection.” He recites those developments and names their progenitors—William James, John Dewey, John Rawls, Thomas Kuhn, Hillary Putnam, Richard Bernstein, Richard Rorty, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Michael Sandel, Martha Minow, Lawrence Tribe, Frank Michelman—so often that sections of the book might be called, “How Harvard Gave Obama to the World.” On the other hand, “I am not trying to establish a necessary connection between philosophical pragmatism and Obama’s politics….No straight lines run from philosophical pragmatism or deliberative democracy to Obama’s positions, strategies, or politics.”

It’s not that the first connection was wrong, I think, but that Kloppenberg over-appreciates it so much he senses a need to back off. He explains that as president of the Harvard Law Review and a student of Tribe, Unger, and Minow, Obama integrated a lot of legal and philosophical thinking into his teaching at the University of Chicago Law School and his writing and politics. Like the academic pragmatists, Obama understands, as Kloppenberg puts it, “what it means to give reasons in a world unbolstered by ultimate truth” and that “our ideas and beliefs must be historicized—placed in the context of a particular time ...

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