I’m reading Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America in which he provides an historical perspective on the American character, which he calls “soul”. His subtitle reveals his theme – “The Battle for Our Better Angels”. We are a country of conflict and contradiction – oppression and opportunity, diversity and white supremacy, freedom and judgment. Over the course of history we have endured civil wars, social unrest, weak leaders, but time and again, our “better angels” have risen up to move us forward. It reminds me of what Winston Churchill said about us – “you can count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve exhausted every other possibility”.
It seems to me that we are in the midst of one of those moments of great national struggle. To use a phrase from Meacham, we could be in a struggle “between hope and fear”.
Our previous president, Barack Obama, rose to prominence on a platform of “hope and change”. He had recently written Audacity of Hope, which became a best seller. It captured a fundamental American attitude of opportunity and improvement, even against strong odds and tough times. His personal story captured the great American story – of someone without advantage who could rise to the highest office in the land. He swept into office at the zenith of the “Great Recession” and after the country was weary from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hope was in the air as our country elected its first African-American president, suggesting that perhaps we had reached a new level in racial reconciliation. But that turned out to be wishful thinking.
During Obama’s term, much of the economy rebounded (at least the stock market did). But the stratification of wealth continued and “middle America” fell further behind. A large number of Americas felt that they had lost something they previously had – jobs, economic opportunity, the power to be in charge of their lives. And it knocked the scabs off our wounds of racial reconciliation, proving that we still have much to do before we truly see all of our fellow Americans as equals. As expressed by David Brooks at the Republican Convention in 2016, we were seeing a movement about regaining what some feel they had somehow lost. The slogan “Make America Great Again” is not about hope for the future; in reality it is a rallying cry to regain power that they feel they have lost.
Now we are seeing a country and politics more polarized than ever. Shouted by our political leaders, given voice by media and magnified by social media. They are suggesting that we have a choice to make – between winners and losers, right and wrong, good and evil. It seems to me that this over simplifies our complex civil calculus, and it doesn’t give us – “the people” – much credit.
While some might think we have to choose between hope and fear, I don’t think it’s that simple. We should understand that hope and fear coexist, and I think we live our lives trying to balance them. While we all tip that balance a little differently, I would like to think that hope wins out more often.
While fear might trigger action, it is by nature a protective and destructive force. It is based on a mindset of scarcity. Hope is based on a mindset of abundance, on what could be. And that seems to me to be fundamental to the American character over the course of its history. That sense of hope and opportunity, of what we can be. If anything, that’s what we need to regain.
So, let’s Make America Hope Again.