Barack Obama — philosophical pragmatist or left-wing ideologue?

With President Obama’s stock well off of its all-time highs, competition for the Obama worship award is not terribly intense this year. Nonetheless, I think Harvard historian James Kloppenberg would be a worthy winner in any year.
Kloppenberg has written a forthcoming book called Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition, which purports to be an intellectual history of the Great Man. Kloppenberg considers Obama to be a true intellectual — a kind of philosopher president, that rare breed found only a handful of times in American history. The only other examples, he says, are John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson.
Kloppenberg bases this view in part on his ability to detect in Obama’s thinking traces of major philosophers and theorists like Weber, Nietzsche, Thoreau, Emerson, and Rawls. I’m confident that Kloppenberg is intellectually nimble enough to make these connections. As a student, I used to pride myself in finding traces of Hegel in the writings of various 19th and 20th century philosophers and novelists. When I got tired of that, I would find traces of Schopenhauer, who disagreed with Hegel on just about everything.
But, as Stanley Kurtz shows in Radical-in-Chief, the thinkers Obama was paying most attention to as a young man were socialists. They included Frances Fox Piven, Harry Boyte (an apostle of stealth socialist community organizing), and the Marxist “dependency theorists,” whose views of third world development alarmed Obama’s half-sister when Obama tried to lecture her.
A young Cornel West likely was also in that mix. At that time, West was attempting to meld black liberation theology with traditional socialism.
These days, West is considered a pragmatist, and much of Kloppenberg’s case for Obama’s intellectual status seems to rest on the claim that Obama is a pragmatist too. Indeed, Kloppenberg reportedly sees Obama as firmly in the tradition of the great American pragmatists William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce.
But ideological leftism, not pragmatism, best explains Obama’s approach to concrete issues. Consider housing/banking. Obama aligned himself with ACORN as it pushed financial insititutions to make high-risk loans. A pragmatist could view this issue in various ways. He might conclude that ACORN’s agenda was far too risky, given the strong pragmatic interest in a sound financial structure (that turned out to be the case). Alternatively, he might conclude that ACORN has it right because the risks are outweighed by the positive value of poor people owning homes. He might even conclude, as some leftists did, that creating a financial crisis, and seeing people kicked out of their homes, is a good thing because it will hasten a revolution, after which America will be a better place.
It requires a political ideology, not pragmatism, to adjudicate among these views. Obama opted for either “the risk is worth it” or “the risk is a good thing in itself” point of view (the former, I assume). Both are leftist outlooks — one is reformist/redistributionist and theother is revolutionary.
Or consider education. In the early 1990s, Obama worked with Bill Ayers, who in his younger days advocated revolution, and another radical, Madeline Talbott, in an attempt to transform Chicago’s educational system. The plan was to attack the presigious citywide system of magnet schools that had been set up for students with high test scores. They would be replaced by Afrocentric “small schools” under the influence, if not the control, of ACORN.
To try to implement this vision, Ayers used the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC). Obama was the chairman of CAC’s board — placed in that position by Ayers according to David Remnick, Obama’s friendly biographer.
There is certainly a pragmatic case for magnet schools; they provide the opportunity for talented students to develop and leverage their talents in ways they otherwise would not be able to. There is probably also a pragmatic case against them. There may even be a pragmatic case for “Afrocentric” schools, though CAC was, predictably, a failure by any usual measure. Obama and Ayers spent $100 million with no discernible improvement in the test scores of low-performing schools.
To understand why Obama signed on to Ayers’ education program, one must rely on left-wing political idelogy, not pragmatism. The “small schools” didn’t help improve test scores, but one of them was a “peace school” where students celebrated United Nations-themed events instead of traditional American holidays. Another school was Aztec-themed and focused on Mexican culture.
Ayers’ goal was to make schools “sites of resistance” to an oppressive system. Obama supplied the money to try and make this happen. And the money tended to flow to leftist outfits like ACORN and Obama’s own Developing Communities Project.
I doubt that William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce would have approved, but I suspect Karl Marx, Michael Harrington, and Saul Alinsky would have.

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