"The Audacity of Hope":Reclaiming Obama's Optimism in the Trump Era
This article makes the case for the continued relevance of former U.S. president Barack Obama's conception of social hope. To present this conception, I compare it with the views of hope developed by two prominent political philosophers: Immanuel Kant and Richard Rorty. Kant, Rorty, and Obama all espouse the idea that progress must be founded on hope since hope motivates action. Yet the three differ on the grounds of hope. Kant believes that social progress depends on our shared humanity. Similarly, Obama regards progress (in the United States) as founded on a set of values shared by all Americans. Given our divisions today, however, Obama's premise appears implausible. Rorty's philosophy of hope provides a way out of this worry: progress need not depend on an essential feature shared by all but can be achieved by "stitching together" coalitions between groups that share interests. Still, this does not imply that we should abandon Obama's conception of hope altogether. The idea of audacious hope implies that we should have the courage to resist the temptation to let divisions quell our efforts toward political progress. Obama's conception of hope, with the Rortian corrective I defend, holds much promise in our current political climate.
hope, political progress, pragmatism, Richard Rorty, Immanuel Kant
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At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, then-senator Barack Obama used the expression "the audacity of hope" to articulate a vision of U.S. politics that put faith in the possibility of political progress against the odds. He had appropriated this expression from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's 1988 sermon "The Audacity to Hope."1 Obama would go on to use "the audacity of hope" as the title of his 2006 book describing his political career and outlining his political platform. This article investigates the idea of audacious hope with an eye toward reclaiming this idea at a moment in U.S. history characterized by widespread divisions and alienation in politics. The questions with which I am concerned include: What role does hope play in motivating work for political change? What should be the grounds of hope for political progress?
Before considering Obama's conception of hope, I should explain the premise of this article, namely, the present divisions in U.S. society as well as a certain dissatisfaction with politics as it is practiced in Washington. Take as evidence of our current divisions an article published by the Pew Research Center four weeks before the 2018 midterm elections, "Little Partisan Agreement on the Pressing Problems Facing the U.S.," which identifies many areas in which Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided, including, but not limited to, sexism, job opportunities, the fairness of the criminal justice system, climate change, economic inequality, and illegal immigration.2 To give a concrete example of one of the findings, according to this survey, "71% of Democratic voters say the way racial and ethnic minorities are treated by the criminal justice system is a very big problem for the country, compared with just 10% of Republican voters."3 As concerns satisfaction with political representation, in 2017, only 18 percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said that they trusted the federal government to do the right thing "just about always" or "most of the time," a figure that the center claimed had changed little in over a decade.4
Now, even before Donald Trump's election, we were a deeply divided nation. Obama recognized this. In The Audacity of Hope, he gives voice to many areas of disagreement: "Both the presidential election and various statistical measures appeared to bear out the conventional wisdom. Across the spectrum of issues, Americans disagreed: on Iraq, taxes, abortion, guns, the Ten Commandments, gay marriage, immigration, trade, education policy, environmental regulation, the size of government, and the role of the courts. Not only did we disagree, but we disagreed vehemently, with [End Page 257] partisans on each side of the divide unrestrained in the vitriol they hurled at opponents."5 Since polls suggest that our divisions are deeper now than they were at the time of Obama's speech and the writing of his book, we need to ask ever more urgently whether we are entitled to hope for political progress. Obama thought we were. Should we embrace his optimism at a time when the situation is direr? What may we hope in U.S. politics in the Trump era?
What is central to Obama's conception of hope, or so I aim to show, is that political action presupposes hope. That is, without hope, there is no motivation to work for a better future. This is a conception of hope that has antecedents in political philosophy. For the sake of simplicity (or shall I say to complicate matters?), I propose that we look to Kant to understand the claim that political action presupposes hope. I choose Kant among other philosophers given that our topic is politics and that hope figures prominently in Kant's political philosophy. And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not remind us of the fact that Kant accords hope a distinctive place in philosophy when he raises the question "What may I hope?" as one of the three fundamental questions of philosophy in the Critique of Pure Reason.6 (The others are "What can I know?" and "What should I do?")
Hope, according to Kant, concerns things that are uncertain and that are the objects of a wish.7 Thus, in "Toward Perpetual Peace," he declares: "We can hope that the upshots of our actions will accord with our wishes, but we can't know for sure what good or bad consequences will ensue through nature's mechanism from any human action; to do that we would need to survey the whole series of predetermining causes, and our reason isn't yet enlightened enough to do that."8 Examples of objects of hope include "good fortune,"9 "happiness,"10 and "a state of law."11 What is interesting about hope in Kant's writings is that hope for the moral progress of humanity functions (at least at times in his corpus) as a presupposition for moral conduct. The reason for this is that it motivates moral conduct. The connection between hope and moral motivation is perhaps best expressed by Kant in "On the common saying: That may be correct in theory, but it is of no use in practice," where he indicates that "this hope for better times, without which an earnest desire to do something profitable for the general well-being would never have warmed the human heart, has moreover always influenced the work of well-disposed people."12
It is also worth emphasizing for what will come that Kant's conception of moral conduct, and thus, of political progress, relies on a framework [End Page 258] according to which persons have a humanity. This humanity is what distinguishes us from other animals and lies in our rationality, as Kant makes clear when he speaks of our "humanity as rational nature."13 Indeed, in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant offers a version of the categorical imperative that commands respect for the humanity in persons:
If, then, there is to be a supreme practical principle and, with respect to the human will, a categorical imperative, it must be one such that, from the representation of what is necessarily an end for everyone because it is an end in itself, it constitutes an objective principle of the will and thus can serve as a universal practical law: rational nature exists as an end in itself. . . . The practical imperative will therefore be the following: So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.14
Since the categorical imperative tells agents what is required of them unconditionally, we see from the formula of humanity that rationality is one of the linchpins of Kant's account of moral duties. As a consequence of this, rationality plays an important role in his thinking on humankind's moral progress. And this has consequences for his conception of hope: hope motivates us to act toward political progress, and the ground for the actions that will contribute to such progress lies in our humanity.
Obama's conception of hope, I would like to now show, is similar to Kant's. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama underscores the importance of hope as regulative principle: "Not only did my encounters with voters confirm the fundamental decency of the American people, they also reminded me that at the core of the American experience are a set of ideas that continue to stir our collective conscience . . . a running thread of hope that makes our improbable experiment in democracy work."15 In short, hope acts as a motor force in U.S. democracy. Without hope, there is no motivation to bridge partisanship and make political progress. In this regard, Obama's conception of hope resembles some of Kant's descriptions of hope: political action presupposes hope, for without it there is little motivation to work toward a better future. Furthermore, what grounds this hope is the claim that Americans have a "fundamental decency" and share a "common set of values that binds us together despite our differences."16 This hearkens to Kant's reliance on a universal claim about humankind, [End Page 259] except that Obama's claim is restricted to the citizens of the United States. If Obama is not making a metaphysical claim à la Kant but, rather, an empirical one, at the very least, his conception of hope seems to depend on a limited universalism.
But is Obama entitled to this claim? Do Americans share a common decency or set of values?17 As we have seen, there are good reasons to doubt any generalizations about the U.S. citizenry if we look to current divisions within our country. If we reject the hypothesis of a common core of character or of values shared by all Americans, must we relinquish hope for political progress? Should we resort instead to a Kantian metaphysical claim concerning our humanity rather than an empirical claim of the sort Obama makes?
I think that we can find a way out of this issue if we turn to Richard Rorty's writings on social hope. Rorty offers a conception of political hope that bears resemblance to both Kant's and Obama's. The three share the idea that hope is necessary to motivate political action. However, Rorty relies neither on metaphysical claims about humanity, as Kant does, nor on empirical generalizations about social groups, as Obama does. Instead, Rorty's central insight is that social hope is founded on the affinities that social groups may share and that these affinities can lead to broader coalitions and, as a result, to large-scale political progress.
To appraise his conception of hope, I suggest that we first consider his essay "Ethics Without Principles" (1994). Rorty's primary target in that essay is a Kantian conception of morality, according to which "morality is a matter of reason."18 Briefly, Rorty, following Dewey, faults Kant with making a sharp distinction between morality and prudence, which, he believes, does not hold up to the light of day. For Kant, morality is a matter of reason, whereas prudence pertains to that which we share with nonrational animals.19 Rorty objects to the Kantian distinction between reason and prudence for the following reasons. To begin, as a pragmatist, he doubts that anything is nonrelational. In particular, this signifies that there is no such thing as an isolated subject. Consequently, insofar as we are connected to others, there cannot be a sharp distinction between matters of self-interest and our concern for others; in other words, concern for oneself is already concern for others. On these grounds, he proposes that we rethink the distinction between morality and prudence as a matter of degree. Debates that pertain to morality arise when counsels of prudence, such as "to trust strangers less than members of one's own family," do not clearly decide [End Page 260] in favor of one course of action over another.20 How do we decide moral matters? Rorty answers that such decisions depend on the "need to adjust one's behavior to the needs of other human beings."21
For our purposes, we should note that Rorty's rejection of Kant's prudence/morality distinction motivates his quest for a naturalistic, rather than metaphysical, foundation for moral progress. This is where he makes the important claim that we should not strive for commonality to ground moral progress:
Pragmatists suggest that we simply give up the philosophical search for commonality. They think that moral progress might be accelerated if we focused instead on our ability to make the particular little things that divide us seem unimportant—not by comparing them with one big thing that unites us but by comparing them with other little things. Pragmatists think of moral progress as more like sewing together a very large, elaborate, polychrome quilt, than like getting a clear vision of something true and deep. . . . The hope is to sew such groups together with a thousand little stitches—to invoke a thousand little commonalities between their members, rather than specify one big great one, their common humanity.22
This "picture of moral progress" would supplant the Kantian conception, which, as we have seen, is predicated on our shared rational nature.23
Thus far, I have focused on Rorty's objections to Kant. But this discussion also bears on the differences between Obama's and Rorty's conceptions of hope. In his earlier Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty declares: "Hermeneutics sees the relations between various discourses as those of strands in a possible conversation, a conversation which presupposes no disciplinary matrix which unites the speakers, but where the hope of agreement is never lost so long as the conversation lasts. This hope is not a hope for the discovery of antecedently existing common ground, but simply hope for agreement, or, at least, exciting and fruitful disagreement."24 This statement echoes the assertion that hope for a group does not depend on finding a hidden essential feature of that group but, rather, on piecing together commonalities between subsets of that group. What can we learn from this and related statements concerning our prospects for political progress today? The lesson I think we should take is this: instead of searching for a common core of character or of values, as Obama thinks [End Page 261] we should, we should aim to "stitch together" coalitions piecemeal by minimizing the things that divide particular groups.
I find Rorty's proposal very attractive, since it obviates the difficulties inherent in the generalizations on which Obama relies. Given the many things that divide U.S. citizens, it seems implausible that there are essential traits that bind us all. Yet, if we take Rorty's proposal on board, such an absence need not spell the end of hopes for political progress. In fact, this proposal makes sense of how coalitions form and consensus is reached in real life. For example, consider the coalitions between civil rights groups that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. As legal scholar Sheryll Cashin explains, "The March on Washington in 1963, one of the crucial moments in the civil rights movement, was spearheaded by leaders of the Negro American Labor Council, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee."25 For a more recent example, one might think of the coalitions that emerged in the wake of Trump's election and became publicly visible in the momentous Women's March in January 2017, likely the largest public demonstration in the United States.26 According to the journalist Charlotte Alter, the coalitions involved in this march and in the activism that ensued included "Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Global Fund for Women, hundreds of other organizations have also signed on as partners, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the NAACP, the environmental advocacy group 350.org, the health-care-worker union 1199SEIU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, among others."27 Such coalitions remind us of the capacity that groups that share interests—though not necessarily a single unifying interest—have to challenge the status quo.28
Despite the differences between the grounds of hope in political progress, Obama and Rorty agree on at least one thing, namely, that hope is a condition sine qua non for social and political progress. As we have seen, Obama believes that hope motivates political action. But what of Rorty? To better understand the connection between the mood of hope and progress in Rorty's philosophy, I suggest having a closer look at the discussion of hope found in "Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes" (1998). There Rorty spells out the connection between social hope and action.
Rorty begins this essay by considering two important expressions of social hope: the New Testament and the Communist Manifesto. According to him, however false their predictions may be, such documents are vital for a [End Page 262] meaningful existence: "Hope often takes the form of false prediction, as it did in both documents [the New Testament and the Communist Manifesto]. But hope for social justice is nevertheless the only basis for a worthwhile human life."29 This is a strong statement. While we need not take on board that hope for social justice is the only basis for worthwhile life, we can see that Rorty takes hope to have an inspirational character that does not rely on the accuracy of the predictions made by those who propound hope. Referring again to the New Testament and to the Communist Manifesto, he says, "We should skip lightly past the predictions, and concentrate on the expressions of hope. We should read both as inspirational documents, appeals to what Lincoln called 'the better angels of our nature,' rather than as accurate accounts of human history or of human destiny."30 In sum, for Rorty, hope motivates us to act, and this, in the service for a better life for all.
Now, what exactly does hope promise for Rorty? Here it is worth stressing that he does not envision a utopia that would lie in another realm. Indeed, in "Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes," he espouses the Communist Manifesto more than the New Testament: "We moderns are superior to the ancients—both pagan and Christian—in our ability to imagine a utopia here on earth."31 And a little later, he echoes this sentiment: "This sense that the human future can be made different from the human past, unaided by non-human powers, is magnificently expressed in the Manifesto." The issue with the Communist Manifesto (like the New Testament) lies in its "apocalyptic character," its claims that a "utopia will emerge full-blown, and quickly, as soon as some single decisive change has occurred—as soon as private property is abolished."32 In sum, unlike the conception of hope espoused by Marxists, Rortian hope does not depend on a developmental account of the course of history.33 Put succinctly, Rorty does not understand history as an unfolding of socioeconomic regimes, according to which older regimes determine new ones, which themselves determine yet newer regimes, and so on. And I am sure that a liberal politician like Obama would agree with him.
Although Rorty does not appear to give his own definition of hope, in "Education as Socialization and as Individuation" (1989) he characterizes Dewey's conception of hope as follows: "Hope—the ability to believe that the future will be unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than, the past—is the condition of growth."34 If we take this characterization as expressing Rorty's own view—and from the context I think we should—then we could take this as a definition of Rortian hope.35 In a nutshell, for Rorty, [End Page 263] (1) hope expresses a commitment to a shared future, (2) this commitment does not depend on a feature shared by all members of the group in question, and (3) social progress must be founded on hope.
In light of this discussion of Rorty's philosophy of hope, I think that we can find a way out of the impasse we encountered in Obama's political writings. Hope is necessary for political action, but it need not rest on empirical generalizations of the sort to which Obama appeals or on metaphysical claims like Kant's. Should we then simply swap Rorty for Obama in thinking about U.S. politics today? Not quite. I think that the idea of audacious hope has something to teach us in our era of widespread political divisions.
What, then, does it mean to hope audaciously? In his convention speech, Obama defines the audacity of hope as "hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty."36 This suggests a first answer, namely, that audacious hope is a species of hope born out of adversity.
Indeed, in our everyday talk, "audacity" can refer to the willingness to take significant risks. Accordingly, to hope audaciously would mean to hope beyond what is reasonable to hope for. This might be what Obama has in mind when he speaks of audacious hope. Still, we should note that in his convention speech, he is cautious to distinguish audacious hope from what he calls "blind optimism":
John Kerry calls on us to hope. John Edwards calls on us to hope. I'm not talking about blind optimism here, the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't think about it, or health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it.
That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.37
Thus, we could say that Obama's form of hope carves a middle ground between a more settled hope, one founded on very reasonable predictions about the future, and blind optimism, which has no basis in reality. [End Page 264]
Relatedly, it is worth mentioning that "audacity" can be understood as closely allied to the notion of courage. In fact, Kant, in the Anthropology, characterizes audacity as the "opposite of timidity."38 Kant's definition is relevant here since, as we have just seen, Obama defines audacious hope as "hope in the face of difficulty."39 Audacious hope takes courage. This is what I find especially exciting about Obama's vision of hope. Hope is a "yes!" to a better future and a "no!" to those who would have us believe that such a future is impossible. Such a pessimistic outlook would make it appear as though politics in the United States is inherently partisan and would discourage political action. Obama wants us to resist such an outlook; this is the heart of what he means by the "audacity of hope." Audacious hope negates efforts to quell optimism and to sow divisions.
Why dwell on the conception of hope that motivated our former president's bid for the White House? I do so because I think that audacious hope is precisely what is called for in the Trump era. A politics of hope like Obama's can guide us in reforming political discourse at a time of extreme divisions and dissatisfaction with politics in Washington. My view, in short, is this: without the attitude of hope, we are likely to entrench current political divisions and to further alienate those Americans for whom political practice no longer appears relevant. With the Rortian corrective I have proposed, Obama's audacious hope can be considered a tonic—and perhaps a lifesaving one—for our country's politics. [End Page 265]
1. A text of Wright's sermon can be found on the website Preaching Today (http://www.preachingtoday.com/sermons/sermons/2010/july/audacityofhope.html).
2. Pew Research Center, "Little Partisan Agreement on the Pressing Problems Facing the U.S.," October 15, 2018, http://www.people-press.org/2018/10/15/little-partisan-agreement-on-the-pressing-problems-facing-the-u-s/.
4. Pew Research Center, "Government Gets Lower Ratings for Handling Health Care, Environment, Disaster Response," December 14, 2017, http://www.people-press.org/2017/12/14/government-gets-lower-ratings-for-handling-health-care-environment-disaster-response/.
5. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (New York: Crown, 2006), 16. Note that Obama is referring to the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush.
6. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), A805/B833.
7. For guidance on this section on Kant, I should acknowledge my indebtedness to Claudia Bloeser and Titus Stahl's entry on hope in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. See Claudia Bloeser and Titus Stahl, "Hope," in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2017 ed., https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/hope/.
8. Immanuel Kant, "Toward Perpetual Peace," ed. Jonathan Bennett, http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/kant1795.pdf, 19.
9. Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, trans. Robert B. Louden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 153.
10. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A805/B833.
11. Kant, "Toward Perpetual Peace," 30.
12. Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 306.
13. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 37–38.
14. Ibid., 29.
15. Obama, Audacity of Hope, 8.
17. I will sometimes use "Americans" to designate U.S. citizens in keeping with Obama's language. I recognize, however, that this is a problematic usage.
18. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 87.
19. Ibid., 74. To put it another way, humans are subject to categorical imperatives, while humans and nonhuman animals alike may be said to "act" on hypothetical imperatives. Lions are not bound by the imperative not to kill; they know no obligations. Yet they pursue prey by adopting appropriate strategies, such as ambushing an unaware gazelle from behind.
20. Ibid., 73.
21. Ibid., 74.
22. Ibid., 86–87.
23. Ibid., 87.
24. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 318.
25. Sheryll Cashin, "The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Coalition Politics," Saint Louis University Law Journal 49 (2005): 1038.
26. In fact, journalists Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman claim that "the Women's March on Washington was likely the largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history. The only potential competitors were the Vietnam War Moratorium days in 1969 and 1970, which boasted millions of participants worldwide (and up to one million in the United States)." Erica Chenoweth and céline leboeuf reclaiming obama's optimism Jeremy Pressman, "This Is What We Learned by Counting the Women's Marches," Washington Post, February 7, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/02/07/this-is-what-we-learned-by-counting-the-womens-marches/?utm_term=.49c97b0793f9.
27. Charlotte Alter, "How the Women's March Has United Progressives of All Stripes," Time, January 20, 2017, http://time.com/4641575/womens-march-washington-coalition/.
28. On a more pessimistic note, at the time of writing this article, I am reminded of the difficult progress for gun control advocates in the United States. Reporting for Politico in 2015, Sarah Wheaton highlighted the coalitions that were beginning to form between groups allied with Black Lives Matter and gun control advocates seeking to oppose the National Rifle Association. She noted that gun control supporters were "often galvanized by mass shootings that claim mostly white lives" but tended not to focus on the ways in which gun violence affected black communities. What united groups focused on black lives and the gun control movement was the idea that gun control measures would help curb both gun violence within black communities and the mass shootings that have typically spurred gun control advocacy. For further details, see Sarah Wheaton, "Gun Control Groups Forging Alliance with Black Lives Matter," Politico, October 20, 2015, https://www.politico.com/story/2015/10/gun-control-black-lives-matter-214939. I wonder whether the coalitions that emerged in the wake of the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida, will have a better chance at bringing about effective gun control measures.
29. Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 204.
30. Ibid., 205.
31. Ibid., 208.
33. Bloeser and Stahl highlight this point in their Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry "Hope."
34. Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 120.
35. In "Hope," Bloeser and Stahl also indicate that we should take this characterization of Dewey as an expression of Rorty's own view.
36. Barack Obama, "Illinois Senate Candidate Barack Obama," 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address, Washington Post, July 27, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A19751-2004Jul27.html.
38. Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, 156. It is worth mentioning that Kant believes that audacity can veer off course when it no longer takes into account propriety: the "kind of audacity in propriety that gives someone the semblance of not caring about the judgment of others concerning himself is impudence impertinence, or, in milder terms, immodesty." As such, it "does not belong to courage in the moral sense of the term" (156).
39. Obama, "Illinois Senate Candidate Barack Obama."