Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope
I was very curious to hear your thoughts on Obama, both the man and the author. You like him in both capacities, it is clear, but there is something guarded in your appreciation (as there is in mine). I wonder why the two of us remain on guard. Is it because we once believed that politicians really were capable of inspiring Americans in difficult times, as Lincoln or FDR did, only to have purchased a policy of disillusion insurance in more recent years? When the only criterion to become a leading candidate for president is that you have either the last name of Bush or Clinton, it is not hard to be cynical.
Early in his book, Obama calls for "a different kind of politics." As I understand what he is driving at, this has less to do with left and right and more to do with up and down. "That politics will need to reflect our lives as they are actually lived," he writes. "It won't be prepackaged, ready to pull off the shelf." To reach out to all those turned off by politics as it has recently been practiced, politicians ought to start by asking what it means to live a decent life these days and build policies—and ultimately, if need be, ideologies—from that. What they should not do is start with policies driven by ideology, as in the case of George W. Bush's Social Security proposals, and then twist people's lives to fit them.
I wonder if Obama is aware of how much he owes to another thinker who lived a considerable period of his life in Illinois: John Dewey. Once the most famous liberal in America, Dewey has gone into a certain obscurity, in part, due to the fact that liberalism is a dirty word these days and, in part, because Dewey himself, unlike Obama, was a dreadful writer. (The significant exception to Dewey's decline is the work of philosopher Richard Rorty, who insists on Dewey's importance.) But some of the core teachings of Dewey, as well as the other thinkers generally labeled as "pragmatist," remain, and Obama, knowingly or not, is relying on them.
The pragmatists were not particularly pragmatic, at least in the sense we use it today. Pragmatic did not mean a willingness to compromise or to avoid theory in favor of practice. Pragmatism, instead, insisted on the importance of experience. We should be wary of any grand ethical scheme, metaphysics, theology, or epistemology that runs roughshod over life as it actually is lived by real people in real space and time. Pragmatism treated philosophical ambition with skepticism. Make your ideas too grandiose, and it is likely that their eventual effects will be too harmful.
Obama may have caught an emerging zeitgeist that is distrustful of the ambitions once associated with liberalism and increasingly characteristic of conservatism. If so, I give him considerable credit. Ordinarily, liberal periods of ambition in America have been followed by conservative periods of retrenchment. But George W. Bush, rather than retreating from ambition, tried to change the world with his foreign policy and renegotiated a long-standing consensus in his domestic policy. In so doing, he has allowed liberals such as Obama to sound liberal without raising fears that they will somehow cause disruption in their wake. It is not, in short, that Obama offers a message that can unite left-wing Democrats with more centrist ones, although he does. It is that he understands the need to reconnect citizens to government, to remind Americans that what takes place in public life has a serious impact on what takes place in private life.
There are two words of significance in the title of Obama's book. Given the role that fear is playing in the 2006 electoral campaigns, most of the commentary will be devoted to Obama's call for "hope." But I like the term "audacity" better. We need politicians who dare to be different. If you can do that and still be reassuring, all the more power to you.
Alan Wolfe, professor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, is the author most recently of Does American Democracy Still Work?