Magazine article Dissent

Pragmatist Hope

Magazine article Dissent

Pragmatist Hope

Article excerpt

Pragmatist Hope DEMOCRATIC HOPE: PRAGMATISM AND THE POLITICS OF TRUTH by Robert B. Westbrook Cornell University Press, 2005 272 pp $29.95

TAKE CARE OF FREEDOM AND TRUTH WILL TAKE CARE OF ITSELF: INTERVIEWS WITH RICHARD RORTY Edited by Eduardo Mendieta Stanford University Press, 2006 213 pp $19.95

THINK BACK to a time when the Clinton administration's "triangulation" and free-trade policies looked to many on the left like the primary threat to a humane approach to political economy, when controversy about presidential lying had to do with adultery and not a ghastly war, and when political insurgents looked to a candidate other than Ralph Nader to carry the banner of a progressive politics. That candidate was Bill Bradley, whose only success in the 2000 primaries was to lure voters with postgraduate degrees away from Al Gore. But unlike earlier "new politics" efforts, notably Eugene McCarthy's 1968 race, the failed Bradley campaign disappeared without leaving a trace on American politics.

One feature of Bradley's run that is of genuine historical significance is what its failure reveals about the relationship between progressive intellectuals and practical politics at the turn of this century. In the period leading up to his campaign, Bradley gathered around him a kitchen cabinet of academics inspired by the American pragmatist tradition, including Cornel West, Richard Rorty, Benjamin Barber, and historian Robert Westbrook, whose 1991 magisterial John Dewey and American Democracy restored Dewey's democratic theory to the center of contemporary intellectual life. The presence of such people in the Bradley campaign recalled the role their predecessors had played in American politics a hundred years before. Just as Dewey and his followers occupied the radical wing of the Progressive movement, challenging the elitist inclinations of their allies, so too their successors in the Bradley camp seemed to define a left-leaning fringe of Clintonian neoliberalism.

What distinguished the Bradley think tank from the pragmatist-Progressives of the early twentieth century was its isolation from the very people it sought to rally to an alternative democratic politics. The fault was not with the Bradleyites. Settlement houses, progressive schools, social-gospel churches, and cross-class advocacy groups once provided an extraordinary infrastructure for Progressive politics. Today's pragmatists have almost nothing comparable to support their political and intellectual activity. No wonder then that the word "hope" figures so prominently in their writing. Even as it recalls the social-gospel roots of Progressivism, the recourse to "hope" reveals the distance traveled since that distant era of confident reform.

Our most thoughtful intellectuals understand the need to start from scratch by rebuilding the connections between theory and democratic practice. In his latest book, Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth, Westbrook seeks to establish the political consequences of pragmatism as a philosophical method and, more ambitiously, identify what a pragmatist-inspired politics might look like at this moment. That project takes many twists and turns in this rich collection of essays but generally tracks two related agendas, which Westbrook advances through close interrogations of the work of other historians and philosophers. Against Rorty and Richard Posner, who have denied that a pragmatist philosophical stance authorizes a specific political orientation, Westbrook holds that "pragmatism and democratic prophecy are joined at the hip." He then turns to pragmatism to mount a critique of liberalism in the name of a solidaristic politics of civic obligation that he alternately identifies with the "producer-republicanism" John Dewey shared with Eugene Debs and the "social citizenship" of the postwar British Labour Party. Along the way, he offers penetrating readings of such pragmatist icons as Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Dewey, Sidney Hook, Rorty, and West, whom he situates historically and draws on for his own interventions in political theory. …

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