U.S. Intellectual History Blog

READING OBAMA: Kloppenberg Responds to Summers

James Kloppenberg, Harvard University, responds to the John Summers review of his book, Reading Obama. At the end of Kloppenberg’s response, below, is a short reply from Summers.

I am grateful to the editors of USIH for the chance to respond to the review of Reading Obama by my friend John Summers, and I am grateful to John for his spirited critique of my argument as he understood it. I have admired John’s fierce independence since I first got to know him a decade ago when we taught a course together at Harvard on democracy in Europe and America. I do not always agree with his judgment, however, whether the subject is scholarship, politics, or pragmatism. Here I will try to clarify our differences as I see them. The point of my book was not to provide a standard by which Obama’s presidency should be judged. My point instead was to show, using the evidence presented in Obama’s own writings, how he thinks about politics, where he locates himself in the history of American thought, and to explain, as well as possible given the limited evidence available now, why he sees the world as he does.

It seems fitting to address these issues in this forum. After all, it was Patricia Cohen’s October 28, 2010 article in The New York Times about the USIH conference in New York City that kicked off the lively discussion of Reading Obama that has continued for the past seven months. For readers who were not at the CUNY Graduate Center last fall, I presented a paper identifying central themes from Obama’s own books Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope and suggested how one might locate his ideas in the rich traditions of American political thought. Although Cohen’s article was accurate and overall not unsympathetic, one sentence has trailed the book ever since: “Kloppenberg explained that he sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history.” That phrase, “philosopher president,” has surfaced repeatedly, in reviews from the right and the left.

Let me begin with an emphatic denial: I have never called Obama a “philosopher president.” Unless he writes something after his presidency quite different from the fine books he wrote before his election, I doubt that I ever will. It is one thing to study the work of serious thinkers and take them seriously, as I believe Obama has done with writers ranging from James Madison to William James, from Nietzsche to Niebuhr, and from Gordon Wood to Cass Sunstein. It would be quite another to earn the title “philosopher president,” a phrase that not only suggests someone with noteworthy ideas about important question in philosophy but also conjures up, for me at least, all the unsavory connotations of Plato’s philosopher king.

It is true, as Cohen also wrote, that I consider Obama “an intellectual–a word that is frequently considered an epithet among populists with a robust suspicion of Ivy League elites.” And I remain unrepentant: I believe that editing the Harvard Law Review, writing two excellent books on American culture and politics, and teaching civil rights law for a decade at the University of Chicago Law School qualified Obama for that designation just as surely as Woodrow Wilson’s career as a political scientist placed him in that category before he entered electoral politics. Indeed, establishing that Obama’s books merit the close scrutiny of historians and political scientists was among the principal objectives of my book. That claim too has been disputed by critics who deny that intellectuals can be politicians and that politicians can have expressed ideas worthy of careful analysis. Used as a noun to indicate an individual with critical distance from partisan politics, the word “intellectual” has proved protean ever since it entered the French language during the Dreyfus affair and was imported to the US by William James. I will address this complex issue in a new Forward to the paperback edition of Reading Obama, which Princeton University Press will publish in January, 2012. In my view, individuals from John Adams and Marie-Olympe de Gouges to Jean Jaurès and Vaclav Havel–whether characterized as intellectuals or as independent thinkers–-indicate that the border between political thought and political practice had been porous, and that traffic across it had been productive, long before the author of Dreams and Audacity ran for president.

But let me return to John Summers, who has done me a favor by identifying the unintentionally fuzzy sentence, on p. 5 of Reading Obama, that might be responsible for much of the criticism leveled at the book: “Dreams and Hope, taken together, provide not only a window into Obama’s nuanced understanding of American history and culture but also a blueprint for American politics.” John takes that sentence to mean that Obama’s books provide my blueprint for American politics or the blueprint I think the US ought to follow. In his words, “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.” That interpretation of the sentence never occurred to me, but I am happy to concede the ambiguity. In the paperback, I will be sure to change the words “a blueprint” to “his blueprint.” Let me emphasize here that Reading Obama presents my analysis of Barack Obama’s diagnosis and his blueprint, as presented in his books and speeches, not my own or the one I think all Americans should embrace. As I thought the book’s title would indicate, Reading Obama is an effort to examine Barack Obama’s ideas about American history and American politics and explain how they emerged.

John correctly traces the lineage of Obama’s moderate democratic politics to the early twentieth century, the era I examined in my book Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920. In Audacity, Obama himself emphasized certain features of progressive reform, including the role of the social gospel, government regulation of the economy, and the graduated income tax. Obama also stressed the revival and extension of those ideas in the social democratic program articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt late in his third term as president, the “Second Bill of Rights” that he announced in his 1944 state of the union address and on which he ran successfully for reelection later that year. That speech outlined a program, originally developed by FDR’s National Resources Planning Board, for national health insurance, a robust minimum wage, and ambitious schemes for housing, full employment, and insurance against unemployment, accidents, and old age. In Audacity, Obama characterized FDR’s far-reaching program, which I discussed in chapter seven of my book The Virtues of Liberalism and Obama’s friend Cass Sunstein made the focus of his 2004 book The Second Bill of Rights, as the unfulfilled promise of democratic reform. So John is right that I have been interested in the issues addressed by Obama for a long time. But I tried hard in Uncertain Victory and in The Virtues of Liberalism not only to establish linkages between the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey and some strands of progressivism and social democracy on both sides of the Atlantic. I tried also to show the unresolved tensions within and between James’s and Dewey’s ideas about philosophy and politics, to show how and why their followers took their ideas in different directions and disagreed about their implications for particular political issues, and to show the very real obstacles that progressive and social democratic reformers have faced.

The meaning of American democracy has always been contested, often as vigorously as it is now. Even at the peak of enthusiasm for progressive reform or at the height of FDR’s popularity, the foes of social democratic ideas commanded economic and cultural resources that they were able to translate into substantial electoral support. I chided some of Obama’s leftist critics in my book not because I intended to position myself or Obama “above the fray,” to use John’s phrase, but because I think most leftist critics have projected onto Obama a degree of radicalism he never expressed and because I think that those of us on the left sometimes forget that the current President of the United States, no matter how powerful he appears to be, is as powerfully constrained by the United States Congress as were Wilson and FDR. I agree with Eric Alterman that we need public financing for elections, tighter restraints on lobbyists, and a new set of rules for the United States Senate. (Making it proportional to population, as partisans of representative democracy from James Madison to Robert Dahl have observed, would be a good place to begin.) But I do not think we can afford to wash our hands of politics, sordid as it is, until those reforms are in place.

Although John Summers and I might disagree about political strategy, I do not think the differences derive from my alleged aspiration to the status of “Serious Thinker” or “Public Intellectual.” I aspire only to the lofty status of intellectual historian. I am puzzled by John’s characterization of my attitude toward Obama as “adulation.” As he notes but does not emphasize, I do express misgivings about many positions Obama has taken and decisions he has made, including but not limited to drones and civil liberties. I understand the limits of the health care plan and the financial reform package. But again, evaluating Obama’s presidency was not the aim of Reading Obama; I aimed instead to explain, using his own writings, why he has shown a greater willingness to compromise, seek consensus, and settle for incremental gains than some of his enthusiasts who did not read his books might have expected. I also sought, briefly, to contextualize the circumstances in which he was forced to operate in 2009. As William Galston and many other writers have noted, the most substantial progressive reforms of the twentieth century were achieved when FDR and Lyndon Johnson enjoyed overwhelming Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate, not the perilously slim Democratic majorities, weakened further by the large number of blue-dog Democrats elected in 2008, that passed the watered-down legislation on health care and financial regulation in 2009 and 2010. (Incidentally, it is not clear to me why Galston’s politics, whether left, right, or “centrist,” to use John’s word, matter in assessing the accuracy of this observation, which has been made by Bill Clinton and by many political scientists, historians, and journalists.) Enacting progressive social legislation in American history has always been a struggle. Even opening the door to economic regulation, a graduated income tax, social security, or equal protection for women and racial minorities has been met with howls of protest. Presidents aiming for substantial reform face obstacles, both from within their own parties and from the opposition.

I have no quarrel with any critics inclined to exert pressure on a president to push as hard as he can for what he wants to achieve. Again, my goal in Reading Obama was not to assess Obama’s presidency. He had occupied the White House a little over a year when the manuscript went to press, so any overall evaluation would have been premature. I sought instead to establish an unnoticed link between Obama’s approach to governance, which takes seriously the need to listen to opponents and forge coalitions and resists the lure of partisan purity as a matter of principle rather than expediency, and the intellectual transformation of America during the years he came of age. Obama’s writings indicate that he distrusts absolutes and embraces skepticism and experimentation.

In the studies of Obama that have appeared in the last few years, much has been made of the role played by the Civil Right Movement, by Obama’s experience growing up as a mixed-race individual in Hawaii and Indonesia, and by his mother’s lessons in empathy and her devotion to her career in cultural anthropology. We will learn even more about these issues in forthcoming books. All of those factors clearly played a part in shaping Obama’s sensibility. Reading Obama focuses on a different set of influences, including the ideas of anti-foundationalism, historicism, perspectivalism, civic republicanism, deliberative democracy, and the resurgence of pragmatism, all of which changed the terms of debate in American universities when Obama was coming of age. Reading Obama examines the evidence of ideas in Obama’s books and speeches. It is an intellectual biography.

John Summers reminds readers that many earlier and many more recent thinkers found pragmatism wanting: they were, he writes, “riddled by doubts over its capacity to generalize itself in democratic action.” Yet many of the thinkers he admires, including Randolph Bourne, Merle Curti, Richard Hofstadter, Robert Westbrook, and Hans Joas, have criticized some pragmatists’ misuse or misunderstanding of the tradition, as they understand it, by invoking the ideas and arguments of other pragmatists. To cite only the most familiar example, when Randolph Bourne challenged Dewey on World War I, he summoned the spirit of William James. Others have followed his lead, selecting particular strands of the multi-stranded tradition of philosophical pragmatism to wield against those they found straying from its authentic spirit. Fair enough. I have made versions of that point myself in Uncertain Victory, in The Virtues of Liberalism, and in the essay “Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking?” published in the JAH in 1996. In Reading Obama, I wrote, “there never has been–nor, I think, can there be–a clear, explicit, singular lesson to be drawn from the philosophy of pragmatism for a particular political dispute. Indeed, the idea of such a formula is inimical to pragmatism, which is a method for testing beliefs in experience rather than measuring them against a yardstick of unchanging absolutes. Precisely because consequences matter to pragmatists, one can never say dogmatically, in advance, that one policy or another follows necessarily from the commitment to experimentation. Pragmatism is a philosophy for skeptics, a philosophy for those committed to democratic debate and the critical assessment of the results of political decisions, not for true believers convinced they know the right course of action in advance of inquiry and experimentation” (p. xiii).

John Summers is not a skeptic. As readers of his many essays and his book Every Fury on Earth know, he is a professed anarchist and a critic of the academy who thinks most tenured professors have abandoned their principles to become accomplices of injustice. He believes that one must not flinch from speaking truth to power, no matter how unpleasant that may be for privileged and comfortable insiders in universities or in government. That too is a distinguished tradition in American thought, one that runs at least from Henry David Thoreau to Christopher Lasch, and it will no doubt continue into the future through the efforts of writers like John. And he is not alone. Many people at both ends of the contemporary political spectrum see themselves as lonely truth tellers calling Americans back to the noble path as they see it. In making that observation, I hope I am not guilty yet again of “reinforcing the status quo,” as John accuses me of doing. I believe passionately that a radically more progressive tax code, a radically more aggressive approach to regulating the economy, and a radically diminished American military presence in the world are desirable goals. But I have chosen, to use Max Weber’s formulation, Wissenschaft rather than politics as a vocation. As a scholar I do not have to endure the endless give-and-take, the deal-making with people I detest, that is the steady diet of politicians.

Barack Obama has a different understanding of his role in our democracy. As he has made clear throughout his life, explained in his writings, and even announced in some of his notable speeches, he thinks that no one has sole possession of the truth. He believes in deliberating with people who see things differently. He believes in empathy, and in his speech about the killings in Tucson he explained why he thinks it matters so much. As I observed at several points in Reading Obama, those beliefs constitute a gamble in today’s hyper-partisan political atmosphere. It might be a miscalculation. It might even rest on a mistaken understanding of how American democracy works.

As Obama noted in The Audacity of Hope, on the decisive question of slavery it was indeed the extremists, those zealots who refused to compromise with evil, who ultimately forced the issue. But Obama then admitted that whenever he encounters zealots in his own day he feels compelled to ask himself whether, a century from now, they will be thought right and moderates like himself thought wrong. That degree of self-consciousness, that willingness to concede that one’s own views might prove to be wrong and that one’s opponents might prove to be right, is arresting and unusual. I do not think it worthy of “adulation,” but I do think it is uncommon among contemporary Americans, left or right, and particularly uncommon among elected officials and political commentators. Making clear where that acute self-consciousness came from, and explaining why Obama grew to view twenty-first-century cultures and politics through the lenses of skepticism, historicism, and perspectivalism, is the aim of Reading Obama.

John offers a thoughtful meditation on the role of the unconscious in American politics, and he raises the question of whether Obama is sufficiently alert to this problem. This form of political analysis has always made me uneasy. British and French social psychologists began probing the irrationality of the crowd in the late nineteenth century; Walter Lippmann later affirmed their judgment in Public Opinion. But first James and then Dewey replied by continuing to endorse rational argument and empirical evidence as the best democratic response to unreason. We on the left are quick to accuse those on the right of irrationality. Their inability to see our side of things signals their susceptibility to emotional appeals, their failure to think critically, their ignorance of the issues, their susceptibility to conspiracy theories. But as Michael Paul Rogin showed in The Intellectuals and McCarthy and Jill Lepore shows (through very different means) in The Whites of Their Eyes, the radical right has tapped into very traditional sources of American conservatism rather than appealing simply to the “collective unconscious” or manipulating paranoid fantasies. Obama’s more cerebral political style may derive from his years in academia and his commitment to deliberative democracy, but denying the efficacy of reasoned debate and embracing the politics of emotion and symbol seems to me unlikely to cure what ails our politics. I applaud John’s well informed account of this tradition of political diagnosis, but I resist the remedy that seems to be implicit in his analysis.

I will conclude by addressing John’s claim that pragmatism is inadequate as a blueprint for politics. I do understand the problem. The difficulty of establishing a firm basis for political judgment in the absence of foundational philosophy was the central theme of Uncertain Victory and of much I have written since then. I have not changed my mind. Perhaps John is right: perhaps I should have paid more attention to the perils of perspectivalism than I did in Reading Obama. The title of Uncertain Victory is, after all, a pun: the victory of uncertainty itself proved uncertain. When the absolutists hawking communism or fascism after World War I demanded a response, Americans wanted–-perhaps they even needed–something other than a skeptic’s question mark. Likewise today, puzzled by a president who offered them dreams that he hoped to achieve through experimentation rather than steadfast adherence to unchanging principles, many Americans across the political spectrum want answers grounded in absolutes. They want certainty. Explaining that the man they had elected was instead, by his own admission, a disillusioned skeptic as well as a confirmed egalitarian democrat, was the purpose of Reading Obama.

But is it unfair to turn around John’s question about efficacy? Have those who refused to participate in the corrupt and corrupting activity of politics, those who stood to the side and preserved the purity of their positions while denouncing those engaged in the struggle, transformed public life as a result of what they said or wrote more effectively than did, say, John Adams or Jane Addams, Wilson or FDR, Charles Sumner or Bernie Sanders? Every reader of USIH will think of examples on both sides-–on all sides, really–-of these endlessly challenging questions. One of the many reasons to study US intellectual history, surely, is the conviction that our understanding of the history of American thought matters for how we understand the present. I decided to write Reading Obama because I believe Americans ought to grasp how the current President of the United States thinks–and why he thinks as he does. When the White House is occupied by someone who has wrestled seriously with the shaping traditions of American thought and has written about American history as incisively as Obama has done, we intellectual historians should pay attention to his ideas whether we agree with his political strategy or not. John Summers considers it evasive to say it’s too early for historians to assess the significance of the Obama presidency. I disagree. Obama’s presidency has one and a half or perhaps five and a half years to run. Historians are not soothsayers. But one part of the historical record is already in place. By 2010 this president had written two books and a number of speeches, rich and rewarding texts that we intellectual historians can use to help our students probe the traditions of American thought, traditions that all of us have inherited and that we must now shape. If Reading Obama sparks debate about Obama’s understanding of American history–and about the implications of that understanding for American democracy–it will have served its purpose.


Summers replies:

Thanks to my friend Jim Kloppenberg for his gracious and illuminating response. As anyone who knows Jim would expect, his reply raises deep and interesting issues of intellectual history. About one of these, in particular, I’d like to engage him further. He is right to identify me as an anarchist (at least on a few days of the week – like William James, Dwight Macdonald, James Agee, C. Wright Mills, Henry Adams, and others who have professed anarchism, I also have conservative impulses). He is also right that “pragmatism is a philosophy for skeptics.” But does he mean that pragmatists can’t be anarchists, or that anarchists can’t be skeptics? There’s a natural affinity between pragmatism and anarchism that Jim elides when he counterposes them as he does in his reply, an affinity, moreover, that’s been the subject of some very good scholarship. See, for example, David Kadlec’s Mosaic Modernism: Anarchism, Pragmatism, Culture (Johns Hopkins, 2000), and Deborah Coon’s article, “One Moment in the World’s Salvation’: Anarchism and the Radicalization of William James,” from the June 1996 issue of the Journal of American History.

Anarchists are skeptical about the legitimacy of existing institutional power and authority just as pragmatists are skeptical about the legitimacy of existing discourses and conceptual systems. Indeed, contemporary higher education is precisely where institutional authority and established discourses meet. The universities that shaped Barack Obama present an obvious target for anarchist and pragmatist-inflected criticism. Yet it’s the absence of self-criticism that is most remarkable about these institutions. (One is left to wonder, for example, how William James would view Harvard’s transformation into a manufactory of wealth, power, and institutional prestige.)

One Thought on this Post

  1. Thank you both for this excellent exchange.

    What pleases me most about James Kloppenberg’s book, and John Summers’ engagement with it, is the display of intellectual history’s relevance to current political debates. While this may seem a rather obvious point to USIH readers and practitioners, it moves against traditional views of the subfield.

    By studying the thought of a sitting politician—who in this case happens to be the most power politician in the United States—we see how ideas and intellectual commitments guide, confuse, and redirect power. Since one of the opposition’s complaints about Barack Obama is his difference (“he’s not like us,” in the words of some Tea Party adherents), Kloppenberg’s book shows where those differences really lie—i.e. in his mind and not with his skin color, or even his religious beliefs.

    This may be covered in *Reading Obama* (full disclosure: I have not read the book), but I do wonder how Obama’s political philosophy, prior to 2008, dealt with (a) the necessity of appearances, as well as (b) his practical strategy for compromise and negotiation. It seems to be that (a) is of most concern to today’s conservatives (i.e. what’s Obama hiding?), and (b) to today’s liberals (i.e. why isn’t Obama hiding more?). – TL

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