Tuesday, September 28, 2010

“...a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed...”

Thursday, 10.28 / Saturday, 10.30

Obama evidently fits into a small set of intellectual American presidents, and is the first to fit into the intellectual lineage (outside of politics) of American pragmatism. Reading Obama evidently shows a comprehensively-progressive political engagement with deliberative democratic thought which (I anticipate) connects well with the philosophy of Jürgen Habermas which is a development of American pragmatism for his approach to philosophy, so influential for me.

Indeed, the U.S. Constitution was a pragmatic conception before any overt conception of pragmatism; so, too, our history of jurisprudence. So, pragmatism is intrinsic to the American political idea of constitutional patriotism.

As our evolving history is premised on ideas of progress, The Real American Dream led to a cultural progressivism that has become inherent to the politics of American pragmatism.

That history concords with progressivist trends of the middle and late 20th century whose planetary thinking might be validly characterized now (I would argue) as a Green Humanism.

I’m working to better understand the real humanity of such a progressivism. In particular (as one person trying to do what he can in available time), I want to exemplify how the generativity of our evolving through creative and empathic human development can have a philosophically tenable conceptuality.

11.8 — 12:27 am

Continuing the above line of thought in more detail, here’s what I posted to the Habermas group yesterday (minus introductory context there and m-dashes that went through the Yahoo! system as glyphical garbage) with some revision and an ending not earlier posted.

* * *
According to Kloppenberg, Obama ’s critical years of development at Harvard took place at a time of especially-progressive ferment in legal theory concordant with Hilary Putnam’s (Harvard) and Richard Bernstein’s (New School, NYC) pragmatic interest in Habermas (beyond the fact that “...many of Bernstein’s books...appeared regularly in the footnotes of law review articles and books...at just the time when Obama was studying law at Harvard…” [134]).

Koppleberg briefly discusses key conceptual features of Bernstein’s pragmatism (133-4), which “drew together ideas from the traditions of hermeneutics and existential phenomenology, the later writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the critical theory of Habermas, whose Deweyan dimensions Bernstein was among the first Americans to emphasize.” Koppleberg claims that “Bernstein has advanced the version of pragmatism that seems to me closest to the ideas advanced in Obama’s books—although Obama is hardly as systematic in the presentation of the philosophy—[such that] I want to outline the five dimensions of Bernstein’s pragmatism” as “echoing” throughout Obama’s books: “fallibilism.... the inescapably sociocultural character of individual experience.... the participation of individual interpreters in a community of inquiry or discourse.... [Jamesian/Deweyan] sensitivity to radical contingency.... [and] a pluralistic philosophy for a pluralistic universe.” This might be read as partisan overreading of Obama’s political practice, except that the point of Koppleberg’s book is that Obama is overtly thinking in light of a coherent and deliberate pragmatic philosophy that is integral to how he works. 

The highly esteemed Harvard theorist of Constitutional law, Lawrence Tribe, is said, according to Koppleberg, to “credit Obama [as student] for helping him [i.e., Tribe] to see...the interpretation of...the United States Constitution...as a conversation, an interpretive process that never ends” (133). That seems a bit exaggerated (Tribe is well-known for his animus for Original Intent jurisprudence and his support for the Obama presidency), but the comment goes to the point of Obama’s seriousness of intellectual engagement, which Koppelberg’s book is explicating in much detail. 

Koppleberg actually claims that Obama, as an undergraduate, read Habermas, among others, in Obama’s overt search for a political philosophy (17, 104). An apparent keynote of Koppleberg’s expository strategy toward Obama’s legal education is to tie the discursive ferment of legal controversy at Harvard to Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, Rawls, and Bernstein, all of whom were at that time especially interested in Habermas while Obama was at Harvard Law. “Perhaps not surprisingly, given Putnam’s position as a member of the Harvard Department of Philosophy, he has been more frequently cited by Harvard Law School faculty members than have the other contemporary philosophical pragmatists. In ‘A Reconsideration of Deweyan Pragmatism,’ Putnam’s stirring contribution to Pragmatism in Law and Society, the volume derived from the 1990 Harvard Law School conference on pragmatism, he invoked both Dewey and James—and tied their insights to those of Habermas—to make the case for a ‘radical’ democracy that is pragmatist rather than foundationalist, participatory rather than elitist, and ‘more hard-headed and realistic’ than the romantic ideas [of much Deweyan work...,] precisely the model laid out in Obama’s ‘Why Organize’ to justify the continuing effort to empower the disempowered” (136-7).

There’s a rising tide in the U.S. of animus toward gilded age capitalism, being put in terms that the general public can appreciate: signaled by Robert Reich, Aftershock (2010) and Paul Pierson and J.S. Hacker, Winner-Take-All Politics (2010)—Pierson is Chair of the Poli. Sci. Dept. at UC, Berkeley—as well as signaled by the usual suspects in the progressive press.

Disappointed progressives (many of whom were living a fantasy politics of good faith, a parallel universe against the fantasy politics of bad faith that leads Republicanism) sooth themselves by recalling how the Republican mid-term sweep of 1994 set the stage for Clinton’s re-election in 1996. But this deserves more than soothing note. The Democratic mid-term losses were overtly anticipated at the beginning of the Obama administration (I could argue in detail). I’m glad to be on record now as claiming that the Republicans are going to implode through obstructionism (and their lack of realistic/pragmatic ideas); the economy is going to be recovering well by mid-2012; the G20 will have smoothed out recovery from the global recession; and Obama will be riding high in the polls. 

Quite obviously in early 2009, Obama was going to be strapped with Bush’s mess. But all trendspotters at the time envisioned that the recession would be quite gone by 2011, and that appears to be increasingly the case. To my mind, the progressivism of 2008 has not been betrayed. But progressivism needs to—as one says these days—“man up” to the mechanics of change in a very organized storm.

A sad reality of democracy in complex society is that most of the public will not have the time to understand what’s actually going on; so competitions of fantasy politics prevail in elections, and populism of the moment can speak poorly for democracy. But a close reading of the Obama administration over  the past 20 months shows a progressive realism with Chicago street smarts (having no innocence about political machines). 

Progressives basically have 6 or so months to get their acts together, because the 2012 election season begins September, 2011. And American progressives need the constructive solidarity of progressives outside the U.S., not prevailing expressions of disillusioned fantasy politics.

Pierson and Hacker are basically writing a historical story with Winner-Take-All Politics (discussed by Bob Herbert’s NY Times column last week), but the upshot (their “Conclusion”—all of which is available online via Amazon.com’s “Look Inside” feature) is that progressive organization needs to become as efficient as organized capital (which Republicanism serves). The better organized case wins. The nature of the game is organization: who understands the real organization of the world most efficaciously, at whatever level, and targets their resources most effectively (which is no simple reality of having the most money, proven by recent California elections).

If a truly Habermasian advisor was close to Obama, would Obama be performing as he does? I would argue yes. And I challenge Habermasians to come up with a better politics than the Obama administration has.

By the way, Obama wrote an Op-Ed article, “Exporting Our Way to Stability,” for Friday’s NY Times, basically (it seems to me) bolstering an anti-protectionist stance for the upcoming G-20 meeting, which I intend to discuss.