Global Citizenship Through Reciprocity:

Alain Locke and Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign Rhetoric


A Paper Submission for 2009 SAAP Conference


Abstract: 149 words

Paper: 3,418 words



            This essay removes Alain Locke from his usual context within discussions of axiology and engages him with discussions of international relations in order to find insights for how to renew America’s role as a responsible global citizen. It argues that Locke’s ideal of a cosmopolitan global community based on reciprocity and tolerance is an antidote for the ill-will that has built up in the global community towards the U.S. over the last eight years. Further, it highlights the significant resemblances between Locke’s pluralistic philosophy and the ideals expressed by Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign. In particular, it argues that when read through the lens of Locke’s philosophy, Obama’s rhetoric reveals a pragmatic meliorism that offers a viable program for achieving a sustainable global community.  In drawing this analogy, this essay demonstrates the continuing relevance of Locke’s work on democracy while illuminating the philosophical depth of Obama’s campaign. 


The Ugly Americans


            Just as American citizens hold their leaders in the White House and Congress in historically low regard, the world community disapproves deeply of our behavior on the world stage.  The United States still wields vast global influence, but 2008 finds our influence fading to such an extent that some wonder if we’ve let slip our superpower mantle. A recent global attitude survey catalogues the sad list of American foreign policy missteps that account for why our standing as a global citizen has been so badly tarnished in the last eight years:


Global distrust of American leadership is reflected in increasing disapproval of the cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy. Not only is there worldwide support for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, but there also is considerable opposition to U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan. Western European publics are at best divided about keeping troops there. In nearly every predominantly Muslim country, overwhelming majorities want U.S. and NATO troops withdrawn from Afghanistan as soon as possible. In addition, global support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism ebbs ever lower. And the United States is the nation blamed most often for hurting the world's environment, at a time of rising global concern about environmental issues.[1]



With the end of the Bush presidency there is no shortage of literature on why and how things got as bad as they did. While the potential causes for this problem are legion, much of the problem entails the inflexible, sometimes imperial, mindset of our top elected and appointed officials. To a student of American philosophy the last eight years seem like an awful practicum on the flaws of the first two of Peirce’s methods of fixing belief. The second Bush administration’s willingness to cherry-pick intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War and refusal to allow government agencies like the EPA and CDC to publish scientific findings that call into question administration dogma on issues such as carbon emissions and cervical cancer are spot-on examples of the method of tenacity, which Peirce characterized as,

Taking any answer to a question which we may fancy, and constantly reiterating it to ourselves, dwelling on all which may conduce to that belief, and learning to turn with contempt and hatred from anything which might disturb it.[2]


Furthermore, the unquestioning and sycophantic obedience to the Bush administration evidenced by many people in the government and the media is an example of the method of authority, which achieves temporary order by empowering the state to determine which beliefs may be held and which may not. The conduct of senior members of the Bush Justice Department fits neatly within Peirce’s definition of this second method, specifically when they used an overtly political test when hiring applicants for career positions in the Justice department.[3] Thus it came to pass that a man known as “The Leader of the Free World,” intoned, “You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror."[4] Thus it came to pass that we went to war because we feared the mushroom clouds that would be created by non-existent Nigerian yellow cake.

            In light of America’s poor reputation after the cavalier behavior of the Bush Administration, one of the key foreign policy questions facing the next president is how to again be and be seen as a reciprocal and responsible agent within the world community. Replacing Bush’s Manichean dichotomy with something more nuanced and humble would go a long way towards rebuilding crucial diplomatic bridges. Fortunately, the American experiment has yielded a great number of cosmopolitan thinkers who offer us wisdom on how we might repair our relationships for the sake of peace and prosperity.


Locke’s Vision of Pluralistic Democracy


            Alain LeRoy Locke is one such thinker in the American vein whose work on the relationship between a value relativism and cosmopolitan democracy offers vital, though relatively unexplored, resources for rebuilding our global relationships. In a global political environment marked by escalating sectarian strife and increasing nuclear proliferation, his vision of a cosmopolitan and pluralistic society built upon mutual reciprocity and tolerance is perhaps our clearest path out of the thicket of “chronic internecine conflict of competing absolutes.”[5]

            Locke argues for the transformative and liberatory power of democracy in his essay “Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy.” This essay reminds those of us emerging from eight years of “my way or the highway” governance that there exists a “vital connection between pluralism and democracy,” which necessitates all people who hope to live in a democratic system to accept pluralism in terms of values and cultures. [6] Locke explains why the inflexible mindset of an extreme partisan is anathema to democracy, saying that,

if we refuse to orient ourselves courageously and intelligently to a universe of peoples and cultures, and continue to base our prime values on fractional segments of nations, race, sect, or particular types of institutional culture, there is indeed little or no hope for a stable world order of any kind- democratic or otherwise.[7]


            Locke’s argument for the indivisibility of pluralism from democracy starts with the premise that value pluralism reigns over human agents, be they the 350 million people who compose this democratic project or the six billion people on this planet. Simply put, any sizable group of people will value among themselves a wide range of goods. Locke believes that the descriptive fact of value pluralism leads us either to force all people to adopt one common set of value objects, or to achieve harmony within existing value pluralism. The first choice is the desired option of the fanatic and the absolutist so smitten with the object of their valuation that they don’t even consider the value of the objects valued by others. However, Locke hopes that once we comprehend the unavoidable nature of value pluralism within human communities we will eventually adopt two normative commitments that are necessary for a properly functioning democracy. He writes in “Values and Imperatives” that, “value pluralism … proposes its two most important corollaries, -- the principles of reciprocity and tolerance.”[8]  Locke argues that these two principles are deeply linked, saying,

Social reciprocity for value loyalties is but a new name for the old virtue of tolerance, yet it does bring the question of tolerance down from the lofty thin air of idealism and chivalry to the plane of enlightened self-interest and the practical possibilities of effective value-sharing. As a working principle, it divorces proper value loyalty from unjustifiable value bigotry, releases a cult from blind identification with creed and dogma, and invests no value interest with monopoly or permanent priority.[9]



            Locke leads us to realize that humanity faces a disjunction that only grows more explosive as we develop ever more lethal technologies: either we respond to the inevitability of radical disagreement in terms of the objects of our plural loyalties through social reciprocity for value loyalties or we will be locked perpetually in conflict. Of course, the imperative to achieve a pluralistic respect for value loyalties is even more pressing now in an era when political states are weakened both by the increasing power of transactional corporations and the resurgence of sectarian and nationalist strife around the world.

            Locke’s call for reciprocity and tolerance implies a refusal of value absolutism. Locke asked his readers in the middle of the 20th Century to realize that they had to reject out of hand the absolutist’s path to order.

Paradoxically enough, absolutism in all its varieties – religious, philosophical, political, and cultural – despite the insistent linking together of unity and  universality, seems able, so far as historical evidence shows, to promote unity only at the cost of universality. For absolutism’s way to unity is the way of orthodoxy, which involves authoritarian conformity and subordination.[10]


With the fall of the Society Union in the 1990’s, many hoped that humanity had left behind the last vestiges of absolutist political systems in favor of the sorts of pluralistic models urged by Locke and others. Of course, we know now that we’ve merely traded a two-sided Cold War for a far more complex battle-royal of intersecting political, military and cultural conflicts. We have seen a proliferation of absolutism in all it varieties ranging from the dour theological extremism of Wahabist Islam to the ethnic absolutism driving the genocide against the people of Darfur to the Evangelical, capitalist and imperialist fundamentalism of the Bush Administration.  In this context, Locke’s call for value pluralism and cosmopolitan democracy is a pragmatic path to global peace. It is a call that has echoed through the works of later thinkers such as the Reverend Martin Luther King and perhaps has even influenced at least one serious contender for the American presidency.


Lockean Elements of Obama’s Rhetoric


            Locke wrote words in the 1930’s that still resonate clearly today:


As the clouds darken over our chaotic world, all of us, -- even those who still cherish the dream and hope of a new world order of peace, righteousness and justice, must face the question of where to focus our expectations, where to orient our hopes.[11] 


Locke looked to the spiritual pluralism of the Baha’i faith to provide direction for humanity’s hope. Now, in the twilight of the first decade of the 21st Century, millions of Americans and others around the world have tied their hopes for peace and prosperity to a young Senator from Illinois.  

            While there are significant links between Senator Obama and Alain Locke, there is also an obvious risk associated with reading a politician as a philosopher. At the very least, it requires the leap of faith that they mean what they say. It is, of course, more than possible that Sen. Obama is just another in a long line of smooth operators who promise change before dragging us through familiar partisan pigsties. Perhaps Obama’s supporters are those duped but well intentioned folk who have been taken in, as Tavis Smiley put it, by all the “hysteria and the hype” or are those people for whom “voting for the guy who happens to be black might be the easy way out.”[12] Perhaps Obama is the one of those men mentioned in Plato’s Euthydemus who are,

the frontiersmen between philosophy and politics. They think they themselves are the wisest of men, and that they not only are, but also are thought such by very many.[13]


This paper acknowledges but sets aside these concerns for the sake of exploring the common elements shared between Locke’s work and Obama’s rhetoric.  

            Starting at a superficial level, one notices that several of Locke’s essays bear titles that could just as easily appear on Obama press releases: “Values that Matter,” “Unity through Diversity,” and of course “The Orientation of Hope.” Digging deeper, we find that Obama and Locke share a fundamentally compatible view of democracy as a pluralistic community built upon tolerance and reciprocity. Obama frequently presents himself as a living embodiment of human pluralism by highlighting the fact that his parents were born worlds apart – his father in Kenya, his mother in Kansas – but nonetheless shared “a common dream, born of two continents.”[14]

            Obama and Locke share a similarly pragmatic meliorism in that their works offer remedies for similar problems. In “Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy” Locke warns that we are in a cultural crisis marked by “absolutism [that] has come forward again … with … associated intellectual tyrannies of authoritarian dogmatism and uniformitarian universality.”[15] Contrary to charges that he is a poll-driven, feel-good politician, Obama has paid a steep political price for his refusal to be an orthodox Democratic politician (by, among other things, praising Ronald Reagan, taking absentee fathers to task, and espousing faith in free markets) and for his refusal to play the jingoistic, “my nation, right or wrong” tune that all politicians play during elections (by calling the invasion of Iraq a mistake and speaking to the truth that the average Iraqi is actually worse off than before our ouster of Saddam Hussein.)  Both thinkers are committed to blurring long-drawn political lines for the sake of pluralism and human community.

            One of Obama’s first trials as a potential world leader had to do with the criticism directed at him for his willingness to hold diplomatic talks with any country, even Iran or South Korea. For example, his official campaign website states, “Obama … supports tough, direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions.”[16] In so doing, Obama rejected Bush’s absolutist division of the world into “Friends of Freedom” (that incoherently includes the authoritarian monarchy of Saudi Arabia) and the “Axis of Evil.” Further, he showed a Lockean preference for discussion over violence as a means of achieving peace in a pluralistic world. Judith Green show that how this policy is very much in line with Locke’s own insights on pluralism and democracy when she points out that,

The best way to live peacefully in a world shaped by such culture-related value differences, Locke argues, is to strive for agreement when agreement is necessary – as is shared, perpetual opposition to chattel slavery and genocide – and to “live and let live” in appreciation of one another’s differing group related value loyalties when agreement in not necessary.[17]


            Senator Obama established his place in the American political imagination with his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention that galvanized an audience that wanted desperately to prevent a second Bush term. Obama received his greatest ovation for the section that dissolved the deep political divisions that had defined the American cultural and political landscape for years.

The pundits … like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.[18]


Obama here rejects the description, useful for pundits and analysts, that we are two, warring, cultural nations trapped inside one political body. Instead he describes us as a pluralistic society that holds within itself a wide range of creeds and beliefs that can and will thrive if only its citizens show the sort of value tolerance and reciprocity that Locke described. Instead of throwing red (or rather blue) meat to the democratic faithful, he asks his audience to remember that “we” are more like “them” than unlike them and that they are loyal to their values as we are to ours. Obama’s call to leave behind the trenches of the culture wars lines up easily with Locke’s call for tolerance as “a working principle” that “releases a cult from blind identification with creed and dogma.”[19] By mixing liberal and conservative markers in the culture wars, Obama asks us to reject the idea that we are just what Locke called the “fractional segments of [a] nation,” and instead strive for a pluralistic acceptance and tolerance towards the other members of our democratic community.[20] He is implicitly calling on us to create a “social reciprocity for value loyalties:” he hopes that liberals can come to respect conservative value commitments if not the particular objects of these commitments, and vice versa.[21]

            We see the same Lockean commitments to dissolving orthodoxies and strengthening cross-cultural bonds in Obama’s speeches that touch on international issues. His speech on July 24, 2008 before the Victory Column at Tiergarten Park in Berlin included the following passage:

The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.[22]


Here we see the very Lockean hope that one day we might achieve through understanding and tolerance a truly cosmopolitan world where national boundaries and cultural categories don’t impede our peaceable co-existence. While this speech led many pundits to mock him for trying to be “the President of Europe,” it showed the same kind of Lockean commitment to forging an ever-expanding cosmopolitan sphere built on tolerance and reciprocity. When Sen. Obama stood in Berlin and spoke of tearing down walls, he was not only echoing Ronald Reagan (which for a democrat is the ultimate act of political heresy) but also Locke’s argument that before we can achieve any kind of democratic international community, “the narrowness of our provincialisms must be broken down and our sectarian fanaticisms lose some of their force and glamour.”[23]

            The best evidence for the fact that Locke and Obama draw wisdom from a common source is found in a piece that Obama wrote in 2001 when he was still as State legislator in Illinois. In this essay Obama suggested a uniquely compassionate response to the horrors of the 9/11 attacks.

We must also engage, however, in the more difficult task of understanding the sources of such madness. The essence of this tragedy, it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity. It may find expression in a particular brand of violence, and may be channeled by particular demagogues or fanatics. Most often, though, it grows out of a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair.[24]


We notice many Lockean elements here, most notably the emphasis on understanding and empathy.  Where other leaders in the U.S. were quick to frame this attack as the most recent battle in a holy war between virtuous Western Christians and vicious Arab Muslims, Obama’s call for understanding even in a moment deep morning evidences Locke’s cosmopolitan virtues of tolerance and reciprocity. The problem was not that “they” are unique in their cruelty, but that some of them were so corrupted by an absolutist version of Islam that they lost the empathy that we all need in order to treat other human beings with tolerance and reciprocity. The solution is not for us to answer this act of violence with more violence (as Tom Tancredo suggested when he called for us to bomb Mecca), but to bravely find the empathy we need to identify and resolve the root causes of their absolutism.[25]  By asking us to think about the “climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair,” Obama not only demythologizes the problem and enables us to imagine a solution, he also leads us to be mindful of similar climates within our democratic community that breed similarly dangerous forms of cruelty. 

Final Question


            This paper takes an admittedly charitable reading of both Locke and Obama and while its focus is on thematizing meaningful similarities between Locke and Obama, there are many pertinent questions facing an Obama presidency that emerges from Locke’s work and its interpreters. One question pertains to what Judith Green calls the “transnational capitalist monster” that threatens to flatten all human cultural diversity of values for the sake of establishing one dominant system of unrestrained capital exchange.[26] While sometimes it sounds as if Obama shares Green’s concerns, as when he speaks in favor of more stringent labor and environmental safeguards written into trade agreements such as NAFTA, it is also the case that he sounds comfortable with letting corporations have free rein to move their capital in and around our lives as they see fit. Green’s reading of Locke leaves us with many questions for an Obama presidency: where is Obama on the IMF, on credit ratings for third world nations, on the financial system that forces South Africa to pay back loans taken by the apartheid government to buy services and hardware used to assault and kill black South Africans? He is by virtue of being a major party’s nominee also a recipient of millions of dollars that were produced by this capitalist monster. Can we reasonably hope that he will take their money and still do the right thing, or will he change his tune to the one they paid for?





[1] Pew Global Attitudes Project, “Rising Environmental Concern in 47-Nation Survey: Global Unease with Major World Powers,” (Washington D.C.: Pew Research Center), 1.

[2] Charles S. Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” The Essential Peirce, Vol. 1, Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel, Eds, ([1877] Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1992), 115.

[3] Eric Lichtblau, “Report faults aids in hiring at Justice Department,” New York Times, July 29, 2008,, accessed August 4, 2008.

[4] CNN, “Bush says its time for action,” November 6, 2001., accessed July 19, 2008.

[5] Alain Locke, “Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy,” The Philosophy of Alain Locke, Leonard Harris, ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989), 56

[6] Locke, “Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy,” 53.

[7] Ibid., 63.

[8] Alain Locke, “Values and Imperatives,” in Leonard Harris, ed., The Philosophy of Alain Locke (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989), 47.

[9] Locke, “Values and Imperatives,” 48.

[10] Locke, “Cultural Relativism,” in Leonard Harris, ed., The Philosophy of Alain Locke (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989), 70.

[11] Alain Locke, “The Orientation of Hope,” in Leonard Harris, ed., The Philosophy of Alain Locke (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989), 130.

[12] Tavis Smiley as quoted in Kelefa Sanneh, “What he knows for sure: Tavis Smiley confronts the Obama candidacy,” The New Yorker, August 4, 2008, 28, 29.

[13] Plato’s Euthydemus in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 419.

[14] Barack Obama, “2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address,” Fleet Center, Boston, July 27, 2004. As reprinted in The Washington Post, July 27, 2004., Accessed July 29, 2008.

[15] Locke, “Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy,” 53.

[16], accessed August 4, 2008.

[17] Judith Green, Deep Democracy (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 117.

[18] Barack Obama, “2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address.”

[19] Locke, “Values and Imperatives,” 48.

[20] Locke, “Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy,” 63.

[21] Locke, “Values and Imperatives,” 48.

[22] Barack Obama, “Obama’s Speech in Berlin,” July 24, 2008. As reprinted in New York Times, July 24, 2008. accessed August 15, 2008.

[23] Locke, “Values and Imperatives,” 48.

[24] Barack Obama, “Comments on 9/11,” Hyde Park Herald, September 19, 2001 as quoted in Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, July 21, 2008, p.62.]

[25] Fox News, “Tancredo: If they Nuke Us: Bomb Mecca,” July 15, 2005.,2933,162795,00.html, accessed August 28, 2008.

[26] Green, Deep Democracy, 131.