The Implicit Cynicism of Hope as Political Philosophy

I remember after a semester long doctoral study on rhetoric and ethics with one of my favorite teachers ever, the class was at a loss for how to move forward with the very idea of ethics after we had subjected so much ethical theory to such intense scrutiny.  I think we were wrapping up the course with Levinas, and I remember my teacher suggesting that “hope” was perhaps the most viable ethical comportment in our modern world.  I talked with him a bit after class, and I left feeling deflated: “That’s it?  All we can do is hope?”

This course took place before Barack Obama’s campaign began in earnest and before “Hope and Change” was a familiar public slogan.  In some ways, my professor seems almost prophetic: he had put his finger on a questionable idea whose time had come.  The semiotic vacancy of “Hope and Change” and “Yes We Can” is well-documented, but what surprises me is that the general public (left and right) viewed these slogans as optimistic ones (even if they were empty or unrealizable).

Instead, I see the slogans as terribly cynical.  Let’s deal with “Hope and Change” first.  What was the change referred to?  Obama insisted repeatedly that it alluded to the policy changes that Americans collectively viewed as necessary ones.  But he would often imply that his election would be the change itself, not the precursor to it.  In Grant Park on election night, it became clear that Obama himself was the change: his supporters chanted “Yes We Did!” as he approached the podium.  What did “Yes We Can” refer to?  Presumably enacting the changes that Obama was advocating.  But the “Yes We Did” chant suggests that the mission is now complete: Obama was elected, the “Change” was made.

The “Hope” part of “Hope and Change” is even more troubling.  Supposedly, Obama’s candidacy was a moment of empowerment for the disenfranchised electorate.  But who is supposed to be doing the “Hoping,” Obama or the electorate?  I assume (and hope) that it is an exhortation for the electorate: you make the change, then sit back and hope.  How is that empowerment?  It implies that place for everyday people is on the margins: their role is reduced to bequeathing power upon those who will execute the changes.  This is a cynical vision of participatory democracy, and one that isn’t particularly “hidden inside” the slogan — it is stated pretty plainly, and yet it was embraced by so many.  Do the people seeking empowerment really even want to be empowered?  Or do they just want someone to manage their aspirations and maintain their hopes?

Onto “Yes We Can.”  I can remember receiving a paper from a student shortly after Obama’s election in which the student spent about a half a page discussing how she was personally inspired by the President’s “Yes I Can” campaign.  I wrote in the margin that it wasn’t “Yes I Can,” it was “Yes WE Can.”  But the more I thought about the slip-up, the more it bothered me.  How could a devout Obama supporter who had been aurally assaulted with “Yes We Can” for a year make such a mistake?  “Yes I Can” is precisely the inverse of “Yes We Can.”  The latter slogan IS a message of collectivist empowerment, but the former is an implicit rejection of the collectivist impulse: “Yes I Can” is a statement of individual agency, responsibility, and independence.  “Yes We Can” suggests that the individual does not have the potential to make changes — he must cast his lot with the collective if he wants to get things done, and it is through the simple act of “joining” that his power is expressed.  Again, this idea is one of disempowerment for the citizen.

These slogans neatly parallel the larger philosophical projects of the left: explaining away the human will (i.e., your failures are not your fault but the intolerable outcomes of a flawed system, your successes are not a product of your hard work or aptitude but are the intolerable outcomes of an inequitable system), and reconfiguring the notion of responsibility (minimizing the obligations (and thus, the rights) that fall to the individual and maximizing the obligations (and thus, the rights) that fall to the State).  For a vulgarized expression of these philosophical projects, see Gladwell’s recent book Outliers, which presents itself as a benign rumination on how success works (and was received by the public as such).

The left’s commitment to these projects helps explain their immoderate hatred of the Tea Party.  The Tea Party IS a collective, but they are not Collectivist.  They are loosely defined.  Whatever cohesion the group has is located in its rejection of the Collectivist/Statist impulse: individuals have been subjected to too much government power and the government has become so large (so “Collective”) that it can no longer meaningfully respond to the particular needs of the individual in society.

The success of the Tea Party has fed the hatred of their opponents.  Until the Tea Party, the left had believed that any “collective” action required a subversion of individualism.  Further, they believed that any “authentic” political collective would, through a rational and natural process, come to see the virtues of the leftist program and embrace the cynical-romantic philosophy it entails.  (Put differently, the left didn’t believe an authentic “grassroots” right-political movement was ontologically possible).  The Tea Party is hated in part for proving them wrong.

The stock market lost 2,000 points in the last two weeks.  In the midst of the decline, Obama spoke to fundraisers and explained that he never meant that things would change over night in 2008.  This is his best explanation for the current state of affairs?  In other words, another exhortation: “Keep Hoping.  And Don’t Forget to Vote.”  Let them eat cake.

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