Politics, Pragmatism, and Rhetoric – Part Two

Part two in a two part series about the intersection of pragmatism and rhetoric in Barack Obama’s politics. If you have not read part one, you can find it here.

I left the first part of this discussion with this passage from Barack Obama’s inaugural address:

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.  We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

In this passage we get a glimpse of one more vital overlap between Obama and pragmatism – the emphasis on language. Since the 2004 Democratic National Convention Obama has been deeply  identified with his skill as an orator. Indeed, on the campaign his skill in this area was one of the first things to be used against him by his opponents. He was described as being all words, and no action – all rhetoric and no experience (which was ironic at least in part because so much of his rhetoric was about the power and importance of his life experiences).

By now it is clear that Obama understood, much better than his opponents and his critics, the connection between language and action. As he stood with his hand on the bible being sworn in as the 44th president, he understood that we don’t just speak a language, but are shaped by it as well. Richard Rorty is a modern pragmatist who has written extensively about our ability “to actualize hitherto undreamt-of possibilities by putting new linguistic and other practices into play, and erecting new social constructs.” Which is a fancy way of saying we can change the world by changing the way we speak (and think) about that world.

This idea is right out of the playbook of George Lakoff, a democratic strategist and cognitive scientist who, while not directly associated with pragmatism, surely deals in pragmatist ideas. Lakoff argues that “Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Later he writes:

“New metaphors have the power to create a new reality. This can begin to happen when we start to comprehend our experience in terms of a metaphor, and it becomes deeper reality when we begin to act in terms of it. If a new metaphor enters the conceptual system we base our actions on, it will alter that conceptual system and the perceptions and actions that the system gives rise to. Much of the cultural change arises from the introduction of new metaphorical concepts and the loss of old ones.”

The “change” meme in the Obama campaign was not just a shift away from the Bush years, but a conscious departure from the dichotomous partisan shouting match that has characterized so much of our civic and public dialogue in America for nearly two decades now. Overlaying pragmatism’s emphasis on breaking down dichotomies and the power of language Richard Rorty writes, “that “revolutionary achievements in the arts, in the sciences, and in moral and political thought typically occur when somebody realizes that two or more of our vocabularies are interfering with each other, and proceeds to invent a new vocabulary to replace both.” I think this notion of “inventing a new vocabulary” is an apt description of Obama’s attempts to speak differently about American politics, democracy and identity.

In this way, Obama seems to be fulfilling what Danielle Allen (another Chicago resident), in her book Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown V. Board of Education, calls the central project of democracy. Allen suggests that in terms of our national identity, we must replace the metaphor of “oneness” with a metaphor of “wholeness.” She writes, “the metaphor of wholeness can guide us into a conversation about how to develop habits of citizenship that can help democracy bring trustful coherence out of division without erasing or suppressing difference.” This is no simple process, and I don’t mean to suggest that Obama is perfectly executing the project at hand. What is important is that he seems to be trying.

In The Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson outline what this effort entails in more detail. They write that “When people who are talking don’t share the same culture, knowledge, values, and assumptions, mutual understanding can be especially difficult […] When the chips are down, meaning is negotiated: you slowly figure out what you have in common, what is safe to talk about, how you can communicate unshared experience or create a shared vision.” Through these efforts, through creative endeavors, through new metaphors, we develop “the ability to bend your world view and adjust the way you categorize your experience.” Similarly, Allen writes, “Naming the unnamed, metaphors change language, and with it politics. They allow a speaker to lead an audience onto new conceptual terrain.” This negotiation of meaning and identity, perhaps better than any other description, gets at the root of Obama’s pragmatist rhetoric and how he used language the move a nation.

Lest I paint a portrait of a politician who has it all figured out, or put Obama’s rhetoric on too high a pedestal, it seems worth noting that – as with all pragmatist projects – Obama, his rhetoric, and his vision of America is a work in process. I present these overlaps and intersections between Obama, pragmatism and rhetoric in an effort to map what I see as new possibilities and new promises for discourse, dialogue, and democracy. However, all of this should be understood in the words of William James “less as a solution… than as a program for more work.”


  1. Andrew D says:

    Obama used the phrase “grow our economy” in one of the excerpts included in the essay. As a rhetorical tool I think the agricultural metaphor makes his point about what the country needs in a way that is gravely understated, and it is a prime example (please forgive my beef grading system metaphor) of George Lakoff’s rhetorical strategies. Do people really understand what it takes to cultivate something? The level of planning, cooperation, effort, and crisis management required to actually grow anything is immense. This year’s crop is dependent on last year’s crop as far as soil conditions, capital investments, market conditions, and experience. Each of these issues is a metaphor for politics and has been throughout history. In addition, there are a multitude of things that can go tragically wrong with respect to growing crops such as weather, insects, molds, and capital limitations. Is there a better class of metaphors for politics, or one that more truly encompasses Obama’s emphasis on uniting the country toward common goals?

  2. CB says:


    Your point is well taken, but how many Americans actually know how to grow food, much less where their groceries really come from? Nonetheless, I think your description of agriculture taps into a fundamental naivete about the democratic form of governance–one that I unfortunately share and one necessary to get any emotional lift-off from soaring rhetoric. Just look at the gridlock over Obama’s relief plan, the hand-wringing over Rick Warren or his move to abandon his base and “govern from the center.” 9/11 gave Bush something just short of dictatorial powers to pursue his radical agenda and I’m starting to wonder how Obama can honor the ideal representing ALL the people and still make some dramatic change. He barely planted his crop before the locusts descended…

  3. Josh says:


    I really appreciated your take on this, and agree that there is important nuance in the idea of growing an economy verses other things he could have said, like “expand the economy,” or “strengthen the economy.” I had not thought at all about the agricultural implications of the words he chose and think your reading is really productive.

  4. Josh says:

    Also worth a read is this article “An Eternal Optimist — But Not A Sap” which is summarized on the site as “THE COMMON THEME OF OBAMA’S EARLY EFFORTS HAS BEEN THE SOLIDITY OF HIS GOALS, AND THE PLIABILITY OF HIS MEANS FOR ACHIEVING THEM.” The article is by Ronald Brownstein from the National Journal: http://bit.ly/jlmul

    From the article:

    “Strikingly, the president would not rule out more direct government intervention if his initial approaches fail. “What you can say is I will not allow our financial system to collapse,” he said forcefully when asked if he was excluding a Swedish-style solution. “And we are going to do whatever is required to get credit flowing again so that companies and consumers can do their business and we can get this economy back on track.”

    In such comments, and his remarks about his willingness to work with or without Republican support in Congress, Obama may be revealing much about his conception of leadership. He was insistent that a president’s responsibility is to resist the daily (if not hourly) scorekeeping of the modern political and media system and keep his eye on the horizon. “My job is to help the country take the long view,” he said. Obama portrayed himself as willing to consider a broad range of perspectives for responding to the country’s daunting problems — “We’re going to… work with anybody who wants to work with us constructively,” he said at one point — and open to adjusting his own course to bring others along or simply to respond to evidence that his ideas aren’t working. But repeatedly he declared that no one should interpret that to mean he lacks any clarity about his goals: “My consistent bottom line is: How do we make sure that the American people can work, have a decent income, look after their kids and we can grow the economy.” Any compromises or course corrections, he argued, must serve those overriding priorities.

    That’s an elastic and responsive vision of the presidency which doesn’t quite match the preferences of either the ideological warriors of left and right, or those who define consensus as simply the midpoint between each party’s traditional answers. It contrasts markedly with the style of George W. Bush, who too often viewed rigidity as proof of resolve. Bill Clinton came closer to Obama’s approach, but even he seemed more intent on proving certain fixed assumptions — that opportunity could be balanced with responsibility, for instance, or government activism squared with fiscal discipline. Ronald Reagan likewise shared an instinct toward compromise, but he operated within a more constricting ideological framework than Obama.”

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