HYDE PARK, CHICAGO—To understand Barack Obama, you have to understand Hyde Park, the small neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side where he lives. To understand Hyde Park, you have to understand the University of Chicago. Today, the major controversy at the University of Chicago concerns the construction of a new research institute named after Milton Friedman, the famed Chicago School of Economics thinker who espoused free-market capitalism and opposed government regulation. When the university announced it was creating an institute named after one of its most famous professors—a relatively common practice—the response was not what you might expect; more than 100 professors signed a letter protesting the center. At the core of the controversy, of course, is a debate over the efficacy of the free market and over Friedman’s conservative approach to economics.
This may seem like a hothouse ivory tower debate. But it speaks to the very issue being debated in this election. McCain was ahead of Obama in polls before this fall’s economic crisis hit. One of the things that will help Obama get elected—if the voting goes as predicted—is a sudden dip in faith in free-market capitalism.
But this debate isn’t the only reason Hyde Park is a key to understanding Obama. The neighborhood’s broader intellectual heritage is at the heart of Obama’s measured pragmatism. The University of Chicago may have a reputation as a bastion of conservative thought—home to the free-market gurus of the Chicago School of Economics, like the late George Stigler and Friedman, and to the high-culture mandarins of the Committee on Social Thought, like Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom. Yet Hyde Park was also where Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, and Roderick McKenzie founded the Chicago School of Sociology with their pioneering studies of urban life. The Hyde Park community is built on the idea that people can work together despite their disagreements. That willingness to take seriously the views of others is at the heart of Obama’s measured pragmatism and his ability to reframe traditional divisive issues in new ways.
As has been much observed, Obama’s politics don’t always seem to hew neatly to a traditional line—he appears ready to compromise, to work with others, to “reach across the aisle.” At worst, this might look like wishy-washy indecision or a betrayal of liberal ideology; this past June, for example, Obama angered many on the left when he supported FISA legislation that legalized many forms of surveillance. But at best, Obama promotes a politics of Pragmatism—a strain of the empirically based philosophy developed by William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey, an educational reformer and philosopher who joined the University of Chicago faculty shortly after John D. Rockefeller founded the university in 1891. Pragmatism stresses solutions more than first principles, as does the senator himself. Defending his FISA decision, he told reporters, “Given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay. So I support the compromise, but do so with a firm pledge that as president, I will carefully monitor the program.”
Of course, Barack isn’t from Hyde Park. But the places we make our homes as adults say as much about who we are as the places we come from. The University of Chicago has a reputation for being conservative—mainly because of a handful of its most famous faculty, including Friedman, Strauss, and Bloom. But its real emphasis, viewed more objectively, falls less on political ideology and more on a concern with how ideas can be transmitted into realities. The purism of the free-market Chicago School may arguably seem very different from the empirically based concerns of Pragmatism, and the conservatism of Milton Friedman may seem diametrically opposed to that of a Chicago reformer like Jane Addams. But what unifies them all is an adherence to the notion that ideas can be and should be acted on to change reality. Dewey didn’t just develop pedagogical theories. He founded the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and then used his experiences in those schools as material for his books on education.
At the same time, Hyde Park’s racially and (to some degree) economically integrated community only underscores the need for putting ideas into practice. It may be instructive to compare Hyde Park and the University of Chicago to Cambridge and Harvard (where the more abstract philosophy of Transcendentalism developed). In Hyde Park, students and teachers live in an ivory tower, sure. (The other day I saw a young couple flirting over copies of Simone de Beauvoir’s Being and Nothingness and Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.) But they do so in the most racially integrated neighborhood of a famously segregated city, often meeting up for lunch at Valois, a famous restaurant that also served as the subject for the sociologist Mitchell Duneier’s Slim’s Table, a study of black masculinity and values. (Hyde Park, of course, has also been the home of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, as well as Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, and Jesse Jackson Jr.) Given this cauldron of interconnectivity, it makes sense that many of the traditions here are more sociological than, say, literary, and that an emphasis falls on transforming not only the way people think but the way they act. “Surely one of the reasons he found himself at home in the neighborhood and the university was its seriousness,” Andrew Patner, a journalist and longtime resident of Hyde Park, told me. “It’s a place for vigorous discourse, and it’s a place where people say, ‘Show me.’ You’ve got to back up your points.” It’s easy to find echoes of this in the way Obama has sought not only to convince voters he’s the right candidate for them but also to nudge them into taking active part in the democratic process.
Today, of course, there’s a feeling that action is kicking into gear. At 7:30 this morning, Hyde Park had a hushed and formal feeling and the calm quiet of barely contained excitement. Couples with baby strollers walked together from the poll stations down leaf-strewn streets; the air was unseasonably warm, almost mildewy. Outside Barack Obama’s house—an imposing mansion, in the grand Hyde Park tradition, at Hyde Park Boulevard and Greenwood—stood eight or so cops (most wearing bulletproof vests) guiding pedestrians away from the house and down another street.
Barack and Michelle were voting with their daughters at the Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School a few blocks away. I wandered over. Landscaping trucks lined the streets, and workers were busy clearing away ivy and leaves, as if to make way for new growth. The Obamas had just left the school when I arrived. But the line to vote still stretched out the door, and cameramen were interviewing voters. Off to the right, a group of kids were laughing and playing. One asked a teacher, “Do we have to go to school today?”
Over at Medici, a local coffee shop and bakery Obama used to frequent, I bought a coffee and a chocolate croissant; the cashiers were bustling around, and one said crossly to another: “I can’t do that today; I’m going to vote.” On the back of the cashiers’ shirts it said: “OBAMA EATS HERE.” I asked one when she’d last seen him.
“Not since February,” she said. “But Michelle and the kids eat brunch here every Sunday—and it’s Secret Service everywhere.” She rolled her eyes. I asked if she’d had time to vote yet, and she said: “I’m voting when I get off at 2. I’ve never been so frantic to vote. If I have to wait in line until tomorrow morning, I will.”
Outside, the windows in both the stately homes and the apartment buildings here are cluttered with Obama-Biden signs and the word “HOPE.” Along one of the boulevards, not far from where a man sells incense out of the back of his car, you can find all sorts of bootlegged Obama swag, and in the storefronts are badly screened T-shirts of Obama looking ghostlike and pockmarked. There are no T-shirts with Milton Friedman’s face on them, though one store here sells a University of Chicago shirt that reads, “Where Fun Comes to Die.” Tonight, if Obama wins, surely fun will be alive in the streets for at least one night.