The Audacity of Hope

In the summer of 2020 I published a book, Better Politics Please, yearning for a better way. Six months later January 6 happened and it felt like we were further than ever from coming together as Americans.

That book was written in hope, and I’ve felt awfully hopeless since.

Today I finished reading Barack Obama’s 2006 memoir, The Audacity of Hope. You have to read any political memoir, especially one released in the build up to a presidential run, with a grain of salt. There’s a lot of humble optimism and positive framing of life experience.

But Obama had a lot of hope. Reading the book with the benefit of hindsight, it feels like a failure. I wonder both how he lived up to his own calling and how he would reflect on his own hopefulness.

I don’t know if you could say he changed politics, but there are many people who were inspired to get involved or run for office because of him. I don’t know if you could say he fairly lived up to his ideals or if he was cut off by reactionary forces that found his liberalism a convenient excuse for their racism.

The simple slide from Obama’s hopefulness to Donald Trump’s nastiness is telling.

There’s a lot to go into there, and I won’t. I am curious if his 2020 book, A Promised Land, addresses some of these questions. But the 750+ pages are kind of a turnoff.

It’s hard to read these stirring words and not think, “Yes, we can.”:

“We have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem but we can get something meaningful done.”

“At the core of the American experience are a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences; a running thread of hope that makes our improbable experiment in democracy work.”

“What’s troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics—the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem.”

And for those who say they’re mere words, Obama agreed:

“We know how high-flying words can be deployed in the service of cynical aims, and how the noblest sentiment can be subverted in the name o flower, expedience, greed, or intolerance. Even the standard high school history textbook notes the degree to which from its very inception, the reality of American life has strayed from its myths. In such a climate, any assertion of shared ideals or common values might seem hopelessly naive, if not downright dangerous—an attempt to gloss over serious differences in policy and performance or, worse, a means of muffling the complaints of those who feel ill served by our current institutional arrangements. My argument, however, is that we have no choice.”

Basically, Obama argued that we need to come together as Americans, not a red America or blue America—as he said so eloquently in the 2004 Democratic National Convention that launched him to national fame—but as Americans across all our divisions. And we have to do it despite the cynicism of politics, because otherwise we risk it all:

“We sense—correctly—that the nation’s most significant challenges are being ignored, and that if we don’t change course soon, we may be the first generation in a very long time that leaves behind a weaker and more fractured America than the one we inherited. Perhaps more than any other time in our recent history, we need a new kind of politics, one that can excavate and build upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans.”

That warning seemed hopeful in 2006, but it seems prophetic in 2024.

I could have quoted Obama in my Better Politics Please book, but I didn’t because the very name felt too divisive. That’s part of the problem. As I said above, we could likewise ask how Obama himself contributed to ‘a weaker and more fractured America,’ how much control he had vs. how much was out of his hands.

Sitting here in 2024, barreling toward a presidential election that will be. repeat of 2020, the stakes seem higher and worse than ever. It’s not just a clash of values or ideals or temperament, it’s just petty meanness or rude comments, it’s democracy itself. Trump faces 91 indictments, courts are arguing whether he’s even eligible for the ballot considering his aid of insurrectionists on January 6.

When that’s the division, it’s hard to find a common set of values. How do you bridge a divide of lawlessness? It’s no longer the petty and trivial that distract us, it’s the very rules of the game.

I don’t have an answer here. I’ve often believed in integrity and empathy, that if you honestly listen to opposing views, if you fairly present arguments, we may not find agreement but at least we’ll have respect. I think that’s what Obama was getting at in 2006. But I think that script was flipped on him, and it’s been flipped on us.

Part of me hopes that if we just stick to that script, that rationality will return. My church upbringing would tell me that if we’re steadfast, if we cling to truth despite the storms of culture, we will prevail. Of course many from my church upbringing traded truth for power and lost their soul in the bargain—though they won’t admit it.

Better politics please has never seemed like a more ridiculous hope, and a more necessary one.

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