Pragmatism and ideologues

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a review of a lecture by historian James T. Kloppenberg, titled “In Writings of Obama, a Philosophy Is Unearthed.” According to the article, Kloppenberg contends that Obama is a true intellectual and a “philosopher president,” as were John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson.

If Kloppenberg is correct, it is astonishing that Obama was even elected in this age of anti-intellectualism. Kloppenberg identifies Obama’s philosophical stance as American pragmatism, which is not surprising given Obama’s predilection for Reinhold Niebuhr. But given that we live in an age dominated by ideologues, it is therefore also astonishing that this country elected a pragmatist, which is to say a sort of anti-ideologue.

I’m uncomfortable with Obama’s politics; he’s too far to the right for me. But I have been trying to figure out why I am so much more comfortable with Obama than I was with either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, and I suspect it’s because of his philosophical stance. George W. Bush was (and is) an ideologue, someone who believes in an ultimate truth regardless of contradictory evidence (his rigid morality is a result of being an ideologue). Bill Clinton has, as far as I can tell, no philosophy whatsoever beyond mere expediency (and he has no more morality than a stick). It’s not Obama’s politics with which I’m comfortable, but with his philosophy of pragmatism (and with his morals, which are solid while able to grow and mature). I may not like his politics, but Obama is neither an ideologue like George W. Bush, or nothing at all like Bill Clinton.

This has gotten me thinking about the extent to which ideologues and ideologies have taken over the civic space, from the national stage, to science fiction fandom. These days, we have ideologues on the right and on the left and in the center. What little common morality we have is rigid and based on ideology. Ideologues scare the $#!t out of me; now they’re dominating this country, and that really scares the $#!t out of me.

5 thoughts on “Pragmatism and ideologues

  1. Bill Baar

    I’ve followed Obama since his first run against Bobby Rush for Congress. There’s the Obama you read, the Obama you read, and the Obama you hear. They’re often different. Obama called himself the blank slate, he knows it, and used that perception. I’m afraid you’ve written on the Slate Dan.

  2. Bill Baar

    Sorry, the Obama you read, the Obama you SEE, and the Obama you hear…. the guy is a master of manipulating image. Tony Rezko sitting in the Fed Met Center Prison in Chicago knows Obama best… will see if Tony decides to sing. Rumors are that ‘s coming…

  3. Dan

    Bill, I’m always afraid to post anything vaguely political on my blog because I know you’re going to weigh in with a long string of heavily partisan comments. So BEFORE YOU COMMENT AGAIN, please re-read the post, AND PLEASE READ THIS COMMENT THOROUGHLY.

    If you get to Washington, of course you’re going to be a master of image. But I don’t care about image, and I’m not interested in talking about image. Right now, partisan politics is so mired in image that it’s nearly impossible to get any real sense of the intellect of the people we are electing. I’m trying to have a conversation that’s more about intellectual history than about partisan politics.

    Therefore, I am interested in comparing presidents based on the way they think, rather than their image or their party affiliation. I chose philosophy because I happen to know something about philosophy. If you would like to comment further, please try to stay on topic and talk about philosophy.

    For example, we could extend the conversation to other presidents. Obviously, we’d have to leave out presidents like Bill Clinton, who didn’t seem to have any coherent philosophy (though maybe I’m wronging him, and if so would love to be corrected). I’m willing to bet someone could make a pretty good case that George H. W. Bush was another president who was strongly influenced by the tradition of American pragmatism — which would be pretty interesting because he was president only about ten years after American pragmatism was rejuvenated by the publication of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

    I’d also love to have a serious conversation about the theologies of various presidents. It’s not as clear-cut a matter as some might think. For example, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush are both evangelical Christians, but my sense is that Bush tends more towards dominionism, while Carter might be a Barthian.

  4. Doc Häagen-Dazs

    You write,

    These days, we have ideologues on the right and on the left and in the center…

    I am always suspicious of expressions of bipartisan symmetry, so you’ll have to excuse me if I ask you who you have in mind when you elude to the ideologues on the left?

  5. Dan

    Do @ 4 — Michael Moore, to name one. I’ve also read leftist ideologue bloggers, but I don’t remember their names. Oh, and that crazy incident in the science fiction fandom world (see link in post) — definitely a case of leftist ideologues.

    And yeah, I was kinda exaggerating when I said there are ideologues in the center.

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