Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition

Princeton University Press
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Derided by the Right as dangerous and by the Left as spineless, Barack Obama puzzles observers. In Reading Obama, James T. Kloppenberg reveals the sources of Obama's ideas and explains why his principled aversion to absolutes does not fit contemporary partisan categories. Obama's commitments to deliberation and experimentation derive from sustained engagement with American democratic thought. In a new preface, Kloppenberg explains why Obama has stuck with his commitment to compromise in the first three years of his presidency, despite the criticism it has provoked.

Reading Obama traces the origins of his ideas and establishes him as the most penetrating political thinker elected to the presidency in the past century. Kloppenberg demonstrates the influences that have shaped Obama's distinctive worldview, including Nietzsche and Niebuhr, Ellison and Rawls, and recent theorists engaged in debates about feminism, critical race theory, and cultural norms. Examining Obama's views on the Constitution, slavery and the Civil War, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement, Kloppenberg shows Obama's sophisticated understanding of American history. Obama's interest in compromise, reasoned public debate, and the patient nurturing of civility is a sign of strength, not weakness, Kloppenberg argues. He locates its roots in Madison, Lincoln, and especially in the philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, which nourished generations of American progressives, black and white, female and male, through much of the twentieth century, albeit with mixed results.



Reading Obama reveals the sources of Obama's commitment to democratic deliberation: the books he has read, the visionaries who have inspired him, the social movements and personal struggles that have shaped his thinking. Kloppenberg shows that Obama's positions on social justice, religion, race, family, and America's role in the world do not stem from a desire to please everyone but from deeply rooted--although currently unfashionable--convictions about how a democracy must deal with difference and conflict.

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About the author

James T. Kloppenberg is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and chair of the history department at Harvard University. His books include Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920; The Virtues of Liberalism; and A Companion to American Thought.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Princeton University Press
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Published on
Feb 26, 2012
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Pages
344
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ISBN
9781400842032
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Modern / 21st Century
History / Social History
History / United States / General
Political Science / History & Theory
Political Science / Political Ideologies / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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In this magnificent and encyclopedic overview, James T. Kloppenberg presents the history of democracy from the perspective of those who struggled to envision and achieve it. The story of democracy remains one without an ending, a dynamic of progress and regress that continues to our own day. In the classical age "democracy" was seen as the failure rather than the ideal of good governance. Democracies were deemed chaotic and bloody, indicative of rule by the rabble rather than by enlightened minds. Beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, however, first in Europe and then in England's North American colonies, the reputation of democracy began to rise, resulting in changes that were sometimes revolutionary and dramatic, sometimes gradual and incremental. Kloppenberg offers a fresh look at how concepts and institutions of representative government developed and how understandings of self-rule changed over time on both sides of the Atlantic. Notions about what constituted true democracy preoccupied many of the most influential thinkers of the Western world, from Montaigne and Roger Williams to Milton and John Locke; from Rousseau and Jefferson to Wollstonecraft and Madison; and from de Tocqueville and J. S. Mill to Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Over three centuries, explosive ideas and practices of democracy sparked revolutions--English, American, and French--that again and again culminated in civil wars, disastrous failures of democracy that impeded further progress. Comprehensive, provocative, and authoritative, Toward Democracy traces self-government through three pivotal centuries. The product of twenty years of research and reflection, this momentous work reveals how nations have repeatedly fallen short in their attempts to construct democratic societies based on the principles of autonomy, equality, deliberation, and reciprocity that they have claimed to prize. Underlying this exploration lies Kloppenberg's compelling conviction that democracy was and remains an ethical ideal rather than merely a set of institutions, a goal toward which we continue to struggle.
In this magnificent and encyclopedic overview, James T. Kloppenberg presents the history of democracy from the perspective of those who struggled to envision and achieve it. The story of democracy remains one without an ending, a dynamic of progress and regress that continues to our own day. In the classical age "democracy" was seen as the failure rather than the ideal of good governance. Democracies were deemed chaotic and bloody, indicative of rule by the rabble rather than by enlightened minds. Beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, however, first in Europe and then in England's North American colonies, the reputation of democracy began to rise, resulting in changes that were sometimes revolutionary and dramatic, sometimes gradual and incremental. Kloppenberg offers a fresh look at how concepts and institutions of representative government developed and how understandings of self-rule changed over time on both sides of the Atlantic. Notions about what constituted true democracy preoccupied many of the most influential thinkers of the Western world, from Montaigne and Roger Williams to Milton and John Locke; from Rousseau and Jefferson to Wollstonecraft and Madison; and from de Tocqueville and J. S. Mill to Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Over three centuries, explosive ideas and practices of democracy sparked revolutions--English, American, and French--that again and again culminated in civil wars, disastrous failures of democracy that impeded further progress. Comprehensive, provocative, and authoritative, Toward Democracy traces self-government through three pivotal centuries. The product of twenty years of research and reflection, this momentous work reveals how nations have repeatedly fallen short in their attempts to construct democratic societies based on the principles of autonomy, equality, deliberation, and reciprocity that they have claimed to prize. Underlying this exploration lies Kloppenberg's compelling conviction that democracy was and remains an ethical ideal rather than merely a set of institutions, a goal toward which we continue to struggle.
This spirited analysis--and defense--of American liberalism demonstrates the complex and rich traditions of political, economic, and social discourse that have informed American democratic culture from the seventeenth century to the present. The Virtues of Liberalism provides a convincing response to critics both right and left. Against conservatives outside the academy who oppose liberalism because they equate it with license, James T. Kloppenberg uncovers ample evidence of American republicans' and liberal democrats' commitments to ethical and religious ideals and their awareness of the difficult choices involved in promoting virtue in a culturally diverse nation. Against radical academic critics who reject liberalism because they equate it with Enlightenment reason and individual property holding, Kloppenberg shows the historical roots of American liberals' dual commitments to diversity, manifested in institutions designed to facilitate deliberative democracy, and to government regulations of property and market exchange in accordance with the public good. In contrast to prevailing tendencies to simplify and distort American liberalism, Kloppenberg shows how the multifaceted virtues of liberalism have inspired theorists and reformers from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison through Jane Addams and John Dewey to Martin Luther King, Jr., and then explains how these virtues persist in the work of some liberal democrats today. Endorsing the efforts of such neo-progressive and communitarian theorists and journalists as Michael Walzer, Jane Mansbridge, Michael Sandel, and E. J. Dionne, Kloppenberg also offers a more acute analysis of the historical development of American liberalism and of the complex reasons why it has been transformed and made more vulnerable in recent decades. An intelligent, coherent, and persuasive canvas that stretches from the Enlightenment to the American Revolution, from Tocqueville's observations to the New Deal's social programs, and from the right to worship freely to the idea of ethical responsibility, this book is a valuable contribution to historical scholarship and to contemporary political and cultural debates.
This spirited analysis--and defense--of American liberalism demonstrates the complex and rich traditions of political, economic, and social discourse that have informed American democratic culture from the seventeenth century to the present. The Virtues of Liberalism provides a convincing response to critics both right and left. Against conservatives outside the academy who oppose liberalism because they equate it with license, James T. Kloppenberg uncovers ample evidence of American republicans' and liberal democrats' commitments to ethical and religious ideals and their awareness of the difficult choices involved in promoting virtue in a culturally diverse nation. Against radical academic critics who reject liberalism because they equate it with Enlightenment reason and individual property holding, Kloppenberg shows the historical roots of American liberals' dual commitments to diversity, manifested in institutions designed to facilitate deliberative democracy, and to government regulations of property and market exchange in accordance with the public good. In contrast to prevailing tendencies to simplify and distort American liberalism, Kloppenberg shows how the multifaceted virtues of liberalism have inspired theorists and reformers from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison through Jane Addams and John Dewey to Martin Luther King, Jr., and then explains how these virtues persist in the work of some liberal democrats today. Endorsing the efforts of such neo-progressive and communitarian theorists and journalists as Michael Walzer, Jane Mansbridge, Michael Sandel, and E. J. Dionne, Kloppenberg also offers a more acute analysis of the historical development of American liberalism and of the complex reasons why it has been transformed and made more vulnerable in recent decades. An intelligent, coherent, and persuasive canvas that stretches from the Enlightenment to the American Revolution, from Tocqueville's observations to the New Deal's social programs, and from the right to worship freely to the idea of ethical responsibility, this book is a valuable contribution to historical scholarship and to contemporary political and cultural debates.
Barack Obama puzzles observers. Derided by the Right as dangerous and by the Left as spineless, Obama does not fit contemporary partisan categories. Instead, his writings and speeches reflect a principled aversion to absolutes that derives from sustained engagement with American democratic thought. Reading Obama traces the origins of his ideas and establishes him as the most penetrating political thinker elected to the presidency in the past century.

James T. Kloppenberg demonstrates the influences that have shaped Obama's distinctive worldview, including Nietzsche and Niebuhr, Ellison and Rawls, and recent theorists engaged in debates about feminism, critical race theory, and cultural norms. Examining Obama's views on the Constitution, slavery and the Civil War, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement, Kloppenberg shows Obama's sophisticated understanding of American history. Obama's interest in compromise, reasoned public debate, and the patient nurturing of civility is a sign of strength, not weakness, Kloppenberg argues. He locates its roots in Madison, Lincoln, and especially in the philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, which nourished generations of American progressives, black and white, female and male, through much of the twentieth century, albeit with mixed results.

Reading Obama reveals the sources of Obama's commitment to democratic deliberation: the books he has read, the visionaries who have inspired him, the social movements and personal struggles that have shaped his thinking. Kloppenberg shows that Obama's positions on social justice, religion, race, family, and America's role in the world do not stem from a desire to please everyone but from deeply rooted--although currently unfashionable--convictions about how a democracy must deal with difference and conflict.

In this magnificent and encyclopedic overview, James T. Kloppenberg presents the history of democracy from the perspective of those who struggled to envision and achieve it. The story of democracy remains one without an ending, a dynamic of progress and regress that continues to our own day. In the classical age "democracy" was seen as the failure rather than the ideal of good governance. Democracies were deemed chaotic and bloody, indicative of rule by the rabble rather than by enlightened minds. Beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, however, first in Europe and then in England's North American colonies, the reputation of democracy began to rise, resulting in changes that were sometimes revolutionary and dramatic, sometimes gradual and incremental. Kloppenberg offers a fresh look at how concepts and institutions of representative government developed and how understandings of self-rule changed over time on both sides of the Atlantic. Notions about what constituted true democracy preoccupied many of the most influential thinkers of the Western world, from Montaigne and Roger Williams to Milton and John Locke; from Rousseau and Jefferson to Wollstonecraft and Madison; and from de Tocqueville and J. S. Mill to Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Over three centuries, explosive ideas and practices of democracy sparked revolutions--English, American, and French--that again and again culminated in civil wars, disastrous failures of democracy that impeded further progress. Comprehensive, provocative, and authoritative, Toward Democracy traces self-government through three pivotal centuries. The product of twenty years of research and reflection, this momentous work reveals how nations have repeatedly fallen short in their attempts to construct democratic societies based on the principles of autonomy, equality, deliberation, and reciprocity that they have claimed to prize. Underlying this exploration lies Kloppenberg's compelling conviction that democracy was and remains an ethical ideal rather than merely a set of institutions, a goal toward which we continue to struggle.
In this magnificent and encyclopedic overview, James T. Kloppenberg presents the history of democracy from the perspective of those who struggled to envision and achieve it. The story of democracy remains one without an ending, a dynamic of progress and regress that continues to our own day. In the classical age "democracy" was seen as the failure rather than the ideal of good governance. Democracies were deemed chaotic and bloody, indicative of rule by the rabble rather than by enlightened minds. Beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, however, first in Europe and then in England's North American colonies, the reputation of democracy began to rise, resulting in changes that were sometimes revolutionary and dramatic, sometimes gradual and incremental. Kloppenberg offers a fresh look at how concepts and institutions of representative government developed and how understandings of self-rule changed over time on both sides of the Atlantic. Notions about what constituted true democracy preoccupied many of the most influential thinkers of the Western world, from Montaigne and Roger Williams to Milton and John Locke; from Rousseau and Jefferson to Wollstonecraft and Madison; and from de Tocqueville and J. S. Mill to Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Over three centuries, explosive ideas and practices of democracy sparked revolutions--English, American, and French--that again and again culminated in civil wars, disastrous failures of democracy that impeded further progress. Comprehensive, provocative, and authoritative, Toward Democracy traces self-government through three pivotal centuries. The product of twenty years of research and reflection, this momentous work reveals how nations have repeatedly fallen short in their attempts to construct democratic societies based on the principles of autonomy, equality, deliberation, and reciprocity that they have claimed to prize. Underlying this exploration lies Kloppenberg's compelling conviction that democracy was and remains an ethical ideal rather than merely a set of institutions, a goal toward which we continue to struggle.
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