Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition Review

Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition
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"Conservative" is a word. A 'signifier' in the jargon of philosophy. As a 'word', it ought to have a meaning, to signify something. I've checked my American Heritage dictionary, and I find two primary meanings The first is: "tending to favor the preservation of the existing order". The second is: "moderate, prudent, cautious". To my mind, both meanings would perfectly fit Barack Obama as President, making him patently a "conservative" for better or worse. The "existing order" in the USA is the mixed and balanced economy - loosely watch-dogged capitalism with a modest safety net - paired with the mixed and balanced plan of governance established by the Constitution and its discreet number of amendments. That's NOT the order which radical extremists of the Right want to preserve! By that definition, Sarah Palin and Rand Paul are scarcely conservative. Likewise, it would be hard to make a case that someone who boasts of being a "rogue" and who has participated in a movement in Alaska to secede from the United States should be perceived as "moderate, prudent, cautious."
The Barack Obama whom Professor James Kloppenberg unreservedly admires, whose words and deeds remind the Harvard historian so clearly of those of James Madison, is above all a pragmatic moderate, not attracted to ideology per se of either the Right or the Left, a political man committed -- sincerely committed -- to "deliberative democracy." That commitment has been demonstrated from the beginning of Obama's presidency by his non-imperial relationship with Congress, the 'deliberative' branch of government, and by his cautious attempts to involve the "other party" in bi-partisan discourse. Here's a key paragraph from Dr. Kloppenberg's text:
""Obama is drawn toward the ideas of anti-foundationalism, historicism, and philosophical pragmatism. As an anti-foundationalist, he questions the existence of universal truths. As a historicist, he doubts that any ideas transcend the particularity of time and culture. Finally, as a philosophical pragmatist he insists that all propositions, positions, and policies must be subjected to continuing critical scrutiny. Whereas many activists on both the left and the right proclaim their incommensurable principles with the fervor of true believers, Obama sees things differently. He believes that anti-foundationalism, historicism, and philosophical pragmatism are consistent with the principles of civic republicanism and deliberative democracy on which America was built and for which it should stand.""
How has Dr. Kloppenberg formed this perception of a president so often described in radically different terms? By attentive reading of his two books and his hundreds of public speeches. By listening to the man's own words, analyzing their consistency, comparing them to the writings and speeches of the Founding Fathers of this republic as well as those of thinkers and leaders of the two centuries of America's 'experiment' in representative government. Dr. Kloppenberg finds that Pres. Obama's political values and positions are fundamentally consistent with the American tradition of reasoned disagreement, adaptation, and compromise -- in a word, Discourse. This entire book is devoted to enlarging and documenting the perception that Obama is whole-hearted in his devotion to "preserving" the equanimity established by the Constitution. Here are some lines that Prof. Kloppenberg quotes from a speech Obama delivered on August 31, 2010:
""The greatness of our democracy is grounded in our ability to move beyond our differences, and to learn from our experiences as we confront the many challenges ahead.""
Talk-show ranters might denounce that statement as mere rhetorical boiler-plate, but Dr. Kloppenberg argues that barack Obama means precisely what he says, and also means to govern accordingly. Deliberatively. Moderately.
Professor Kloppenberg does not often turn to Europe or to European politicians in his analysis, preferring to trace the influence of American thinkers from Madison to John Dewey to John Rawls, on the very American Barack Obama. But I find that his representation of Obama's 'mentality' seems remarkably close to the ideas of the contemporary German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas -- mentioned briefly by Kloppeneberg -- another 'thinker' regarded as too centrist by both Right and Left dogmatists. What Dr. Kloppenberg and Pres. Obama might call "foundationalism", Habermas simply calls "ideology", and what Kloppenberg calls "deliberation" Habermas calls "discourse". Under either name, deliberative democracy or discourse is the antidote to ideology. The 'discourse theory of morality', in Habermas's view, conceives morality as a collective and dialogical process of reaching consensus. The ultimate goal of such consensus is to to establish and/or preserve "the kinds of institutions ... needed to protect individuals against the attractions of political extremism, on the one hand, and the depredations of a burgeoning capitalist economy, on the other."
Habermas is a strenuous, abstruse thinker and a ponderous writer. So certainly is John Rawls. It wouldn't serve Barack Obama's electoral prospects to try to expound their notions to American audiences, though I'm fully certain that he is aware of them. Habermas is, above all, an "optimist" about the capacity of the public to "identify the social and institutional conditions that foster autonomy .... truly democratic institutions capable of withstanding the corrosive effects of capitalism and of the state administration." Now, THAT'S Moderation! Neither a statist nor an anarcho-capitalist be! And that seems to me to be the commitment to optimism that Barack Obama pledges.

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Barack Obama puzzles observers. Derided by the Right as dangerous and by the Left as spineless, Obama does not fit contemporary partisan categories. Instead, his writings and speeches reflect a principled aversion to absolutes that derives from sustained engagement with American democratic thought. Reading Obama traces the origins of his ideas and establishes him as the most penetrating political thinker elected to the presidency in the past century.

James T. Kloppenberg demonstrates the influences that have shaped Obama's distinctive worldview, including Nietzsche and Niebuhr, Ellison and Rawls, and recent theorists engaged in debates about feminism, critical race theory, and cultural norms. Examining Obama's views on the Constitution, slavery and the Civil War, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement, Kloppenberg shows Obama's sophisticated understanding of American history. Obama's interest in compromise, reasoned public debate, and the patient nurturing of civility is a sign of strength, not weakness, Kloppenberg argues. He locates its roots in Madison, Lincoln, and especially in the philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, which nourished generations of American progressives, black and white, female and male, through much of the twentieth century, albeit with mixed results.

Reading Obama reveals the sources of Obama's commitment to democratic deliberation: the books he has read, the visionaries who have inspired him, the social movements and personal struggles that have shaped his thinking. Kloppenberg shows that Obama's positions on social justice, religion, race, family, and America's role in the world do not stem from a desire to please everyone but from deeply rooted--although currently unfashionable--convictions about how a democracy must deal with difference and conflict.

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