U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Kloppenberg Plenary: Obama’s (Controversial?) Intellectual Biography

Our Third Annual USIH Conference almost received a direct reference in Patricia Cohen’s review of James T. Kloppenberg’s newest book, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition (Princeton Press, 2010). Here are her two near misses (bolds mine): (1) “In New York City last week to give a standing-room-only lecture about his forthcoming intellectual biography… .” and (2) “Those who heard Mr. Kloppenberg present his argument at a conference on intellectual history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center responded with prolonged applause.”

The USIH omission is a shame because I’m pretty sure I remember Kloppenberg saying in the plenary that his book was released that same day, October 22. The article says “on Sunday,” but it is unclear whether Cohen meant this coming Sunday (Oct. 31) or the Sunday after the conference (Oct. 24). In any case, I guess we’ll have to wait ’til next year on our conference’s first direct NYT appearance. C’est la vie.

We can take some pride, however, in the fact that Cohen quoted from one of our own: Andrew Hartman. Here are her two references to him:

(1) “The way he traced Obama’s intellectual influences was fascinating for us, given that Obama’s academic background seems so similar to ours,” said Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University who helped organize the conference.

(2) “There seemed to be skepticism regarding whether Obama’s intellectual background actually translated into policies that the mostly left-leaning audience could get behind,” Mr. Hartman said. “Several audience members, myself included, probably view Obama the president as a centrist like Clinton rather than a progressive intellectual as painted by Kloppenberg.”

Andrew deserves the credit for the “standing-room-only” crowd. The plenary was held in the Segal Theatre, and thirty-five seats were available both on the right and left sides of the room. Along with the nineteen standing in the back of the room (which included me), I counted roughly 90 people attending. I round up to 90 because I could not see everyone around the columns, and only noticed a random seat or two empty in the chairs.

The book review fairly summarizes Kloppenberg’s talk. I was pleased to see two specific things cited. First, Kloppenberg emphasized at the start of his talk that Obama’s intellectual development occurred in relation to three key themes, or “matrices” (a term left out by Cohen but used by him): (a) the history of American democracy, (b) the ongoing development of the philosophy of pragmatism, and finally (c) the history of the intellectual (and social and cultural) upheavals of the 1970s-1990s. Cohen presents all three of these themes in the tenth paragraph of her piece, or roughly half-way through.

Second, I was also happy to see this humorous line from the talk make into Cohen’s write up (bolds mine):

Conservatives who argue that Mr. Obama is a socialist or an anti-colonialist (as Dinesh D’Souza does in his book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage”) are far off the mark, [Kloppenberg] said. “Adams and Jefferson were the only anti-colonialists whom Obama has been affected by,” he told the audience in New York. “He has a profound love of America.”

Although I liked seeing those two references, there were some further details Kloppenberg relayed in relation to his three key themes. When he discussed the upheavals of the Culture Wars, he stressed the theme–and the tension—between “universality and particularity.” He asserted that Obama absorbed the lessons of Thomas Kuhn, Clifford Geertz, and John Rawls in relation to creating “provisional fixed points” and “useful fictions.” In other words, Kloppenberg sees Obama as incorporating the inherent, contingent nature of pragmatism in his thinking about policy and the culture wars. Obama attempts to undercut the passion of ideological thinking by seeing phenomenological truths rooted in events and episodes.

There is no denying the relativism of this philosophical approach, but Kloppenberg did not specify in his talk whether that framework permeated ~all~ aspects of Obama’s life (e.g. religion), or just his political philosophy. If the former, then conservatives of all stripes will jump on Kloppenberg’s book as proof of Obama’s radical leftism, or at least of his lack of deep roots in the long Western tradition (i.e. transcendent truths, achievement of pure objectivity, etc.). And Kloppenberg’s explicit reference to Nietzsche as being a part of Obama’s intellectual history will push another corner of cultural critics, particularly the Bloomian/Straussian crowd, into apoplexy. I must say that though Kloppenberg made that connection, he did not specify exactly where—in the talk at least—Nietzsche directly entered Obama’s story.

One could counter the relativism charge in relation to Obama’s political philosophy by citing the (liberal) historicism of Obama’s constitutional thinking. Cohen sets this up as the now familiar “living” versus “dead” constitutional philosophies. Here is her passage on this:

Taking his cue from Madison, Mr. Obama writes in his 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope” that the constitutional framework is “designed to force us into a conversation,” that it offers “a way by which we argue about our future.” This notion of a living document is directly at odds with the conception of Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court, who has spoken of “the good, old dead Constitution.”

But Cohen’s—and Kloppenberg’s—reference to James Madison shows how Obama’s philosophy splits, in my opinion, the living/dead difference. Kloppenberg called the following “the only smoking gun” that arose from his research, but he spoke of a November 1991 document wherein Obama elaborated on a “curvature of Constitutional space” around the process of deliberation that informed the document’s creation (i.e. the Constitutional Convention itself as a process of compromise).

So if Scalia and his crowd represent one historical tradition in thinking about the U.S. Constitution “works,” then Obama—and Madison and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and the Warren Court—represent another. Both traditions are historical, but both are not seen as valid in the eyes of (legal) ideologues. I favor the living/deliberative/curvature interpretation, but my point is that appeals to history don’t answer which is better, at least not in the limited context of a discussion about Obama’s intellectual history. The argument is a moral-political one about which interpretative tradition is superior. Conservatives can’t use history to prove wrong a liberal constitutional train of thought.

As a mild digression, I offer that proof in either direction would have to come through a utilitarian study of the effects of both philosophies on policies that touch people. But do we have the time to figure this out by scientific study? No. We’re living the study. And U.S. citizens already complain that our congress doesn’t act fast enough (which would itself be an argument in the direction of living/deliberative tradition—anyway).

That Kloppenberg’s plenary and book served up such meaty history to chew on is a credit to him and the planning team for the conference—Paul Murphy, Lauren Kientz, and especially Andrew Hartman.

I end these reflections by offering a hearty thank you to James Kloppenberg. It was a great pleasure having him at the conference. – TL

One Thought on this Post

  1. The book is out, I already have my copy and it is a very interesting read. I picked up a few books at the conference as well. I just want to cancel my classes for the next two weeks and read all day.

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