The Hope Diet: Would the Tea Party fall for this? Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both peddled a diet of hope.
Publication Date: 2014-03-24
This is from Salon.com, March 23, 2014.
Whew! After wading through 178 pages of meringue like that, the hope-talk of Barack Obama comes as a positive relief. Compared to Bill Clinton, Obama is a poet. In his hands the old platitude sings. He can spin the null concept of hope into oratory to rival Pericles.
Obama's definition of the cherished cliche is slightly different, however. In his 2006 memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," he identified "hope" as a sort of absence of cynicism, a belief that government can do good in the world. He often elaborated on this uninteresting view in his electrifying campaign speeches. In one memorable 2008 appearance before a throng of the faithful in Rhode Island, he defined hope as "That sense that we can make America better." "Nothing worthwhile in this country's ever happened," he continued, "except somebody, somewhere was willing to hope."
But the maneuvers for which Obama are deservedly famous are the leaps and spins he executed in hope's backfield. He not only genuflected before the beloved banality, he pretended it took "audacity" to do so, even going so far as to imagine himself beleaguered by cynics for daring to hope. He liked to introduce his famous description of himself as a "hope-monger," for example, by claiming the phrase was a slight directed at him by Beltway media types, which he would now wear as a badge of honor. Yes, he would stand up for hope regardless of how the highbrows sneered at it.
So why sneer, in my highbrow way? Why not let the Democrats think their positive, boring thoughts? Politicians always speak in platitudes, after all. Why not let them waste their time pondering the subtleties of "hope"?
Because this particular platitude is not harmless. After watching Clinton and Obama theorize on the virtue I concluded it is positively injurious. To describe politics in terms of "hope" fundamentally misrepresents the situation we are in, and by misrepresenting, gets the Democrats off the hook time and again. It is hope that allows them to sell us out over and over. (emphasis added)
I say this because our relationship with elected officials, here in the 21st century, shouldn't really be a matter of hope. When a young person with lousy life chances thinks of his future as a kind of lottery, that is the appropriate terrain for hope. Tell the young to read "Think and Grow Rich," and to buy a scratch ticket while they're at it. Why not?
But with politics it's different: We form groups, we strategize, we donate, we plan how to best advance our collective interests. This is not the lottery. When we elect public servants, the deal ought to be a little more of a sure thing.
Recall, in this connection, one of the most annoying invocations of "hope" ever to cross a politician's lips, John Edwards' vice presidential acceptance speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. His tag line, which he repeated many times: "Hope is on the way." Not "help," mind you; "hope." Edwards had lots of good, practical ideas, but this phrase rubbed me the wrong way. What it seemed to suggest was not that the candidate was actually going to do something for the suffering, hard-working people he described, but that, by the strength of his presence, he was going to give people a chance that someone might do something for them. We give him the vice presidency, he gives us a Powerball ticket.
"Hope" also sets an extremely low standard for judging Democratic politicians. Hope is, by their definition, something they bring with them, or a place they come from, or a poster they are ( literally!) the illustration for; ensuring that this fanciful substance flows our way doesn't require them actually to, you know, enact anything we're hoping for. On the contrary, they can do things (like Clinton's deregulations or Obama's spying program) that actually harm their constituents, and then tell us, as Barack Obama tweeted after the 2012 election, "The definition of hope is you still believe, even when it's hard."
This is the opposite of accountability. It means, just keep waiting, and just keep voting. If you think good thoughts long enough, maybe someday you'll get that million bucks, or that single-payer healthcare system.
And that's probably why this stuff springs so goddamned eternal. After 30 years of these pseudo Democrats--Democrats who fundraise like Republicans, Democrats who govern like Republicans, Democrats who basically become Republicans (emphasis added) (for example, Zell Miller, the creator of the HOPE Scholarship)Ă˘€"it's easy enough to understand why elected officials love the concept. "Hope" means, forget about how you got taken last time. Think positively. Maybe this next Democrat is the one who will finally act the way you think Democrats ought to act. And when he doesn't, "hope" means you need to stick with him anyway, because . . . well, because he's the one who carries hope in his back pocket and all.
At any rate, "hope" is a virtue they mainly recommend for you, the Democratic voter; with their funders and bundlers, the relationship is a little more contractual. For them our Democratic leaders undertake to perform certain actions; it is only for the rank and file that they recommend a diet of wishes. If we complain about this state of affairs, they will no doubt tell us that results in this material world arenĂ˘€™t everything. ThereĂ˘€™s something philosophical and ennobling about hoping for things. "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him," says Job of the Almighty.
When confronting our earthly leaders, however, the situation ought to be a little different. We shouldn't have to hope. We should expect politicians to deliver.
Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.
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