“I steer my bark with Hope in my head, leaving Fear astern. My hopes, indeed, sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy.”
Virtually all Americans desire a peaceful and prosperous future for our nation. I can say this with confidence because virtually all <insert nationality here> people desire a peaceful and prosperous future for <insert nation here>. This is universal human nature. Even in time of war, opposing forces are each mobilized by concern for the security of their homeland.
The most insidious sort of combatants, terrorists, can be distinguished by life-changing experiences in parts of the world devastated by constant violence. Unable to imagine a secure homeland, their desperation drives them to undermine the security of strangers and neighbors alike. Yet even they harbor the twisted hope that shocking violence could raise awareness and bring an end to the brutal oppression in which their darkest tendencies were forged.
Away from the insanity of a place like Belfast during the Troubles or the Gaza Strip today, hope and malice are less likely to intersect. From the yokels responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing to the killers who lash out at abortion clinics, our homegrown terrorists have clearly lost all hope. Consumed and deranged by a potent blend of fear and hatred, they lash out despite having no coherent vision of a better future to follow from those actions.
Responsible civic discourse is always degraded by appeals to fear and hate. Yet it can be elevated by appeals to hope. This nation has made many monumental efforts through the decades. Some, like marginalizing indigenous tribes or organizing the Confederacy, were the product of fearful and hateful rhetoric. By contrast, hopeful rhetoric has inspired our greatest achievements, from the Internet to the Apollo Program all the way back to the Constitution itself.
As fuzzy and sentimental as this analysis may seem, its strength is revealed by the rarity and weakness of exceptions to it. Direct your mind to the past. Did a President’s angry words ever serve as the birth cry of a great national success? Did any dark chapter in our history begin with earnest appeals to the better angels of our nature? If those questions are answered in the negative, a clear relationship between hopeful rhetoric and real success in statecraft has been observed.
The present election provides mixed messages from both sides. The Republican ticket offers hope that there will be more use of domestic fossil fuels, more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and more cold shoulders for foreigners seeking high level diplomacy without preconditions. Few people seriously believe a surge in fossil fuels can address our economic shortcomings, never mind dealing with serious environmental issues. Faith in the panacea of tax cuts remains popular, though in the present historical context that can only be characterized as blind faith.
As far as American exceptionalism goes, that point is a blend of hope and fear. It is all well and good when citizens hope that our nation’s conduct on the world stage is so amazingly wonderful that there are no errors to acknowledge. It is neither well nor good when citizens hope that our nation’s position in the world is so coercively dominant that there is no need to acknowledge errors as they become apparent. When the line between patriotism and jingoism is crossed, so too is the line between hope and fear.
By contrast, the Democrats’ chief appeal to fear draws mainly from a reasonable apprehension about continuity in public policy after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left their mark on world history. Sure, occasionally there is a low blow about Senator McCain’s aversion to modern information technology (after all, a President should have no shortage of top quality clerical assistance.) However, the bulk of the attacks go negative on the record and plans of the Republican nominee — not his personality and assorted minor foibles.
With the rest of their enormous media buys and direct communications, Senator Obama’s supporters articulate real hopes. His health care proposal may not rid the nation of parasitic middlemen, but it does constitute a real effort to address a serious national problem in terms of access to medical goods and services. Few Americans would argue that poor citizens should be allowed to die in the streets due to the costs of treatment. Yet some legislate and millions vote as if that they hoped for precisely that. Not since the early 90s has any prominent American leader tried to realign hope with basic human decency in this crucial way.
Elsewhere, Senator Obama’s idealism takes even more noble forms. His plans for education and science funding would make our workforce more competitive and could bring about a technological renaissance. Healing damaged international relationships, getting serious about renewable energy sources, providing tax relief for families that have never seen a six figure paycheck — the list of appeals driven by hope and joined by substantive specifics is lengthy. Heck, the man even hopes to radically transform [warning: PDF link] the national failure that is our policy on broadband infrastructure development.
Perhaps there is no force in the universe that could silence all the fearmongering and hatemongering noise machines in American politics. Yet that is no reason at all to bend to any particular agenda. The ultimate tax cut would not address the realities of homelessness, domestic hunger, and preventable loss of human life that occur in our cutthroat economy. The ultimate drilling initiative would not address the realities of toxic byproducts, industrial emissions, and rising greenhouse gas levels.
Even if political conservatives accomplished goals as stated in this election cycle, unsolved problems growing, some already devastating in scope, would create far more trouble than the most loud-mouthed partisan pundit ever could. All loyal citizens bear a duty to disregard, dismiss, or dismantle sources of political fear and hate. Likewise, civic duty calls for heartfelt hopes to be expressed clearly and harmonized with the realities of our times.
Not even a sitting President gets to live in a United States perfectly altered to suit his every whim. Hope must be tempered with reason if it is ever to bridge the gaps between our noblest dreams and our daily realities. Fear and hatred repulse reason and hope. What Machiavelli wrote on the subject has little relevance in an open society with regular peaceful transitions of power. Perhaps appeals to fear and hatred have a part to play in popularity contests and power struggles. Yet they can only diminish any civilized leader’s ability to govern effectively over the long term.
Barring one of the greatest surprises in the history of American politics, the contrast will be clear as voters go to the polls on November 4th. One candidate offers ample thoughtful specifics in a long list of plans to make life better for honest working Americans. The other adheres to the failed politics of the past while framing precious few appeals without falling back on themes of fear or hatred. When taking the time to exercise a citizen’s right to vote, think of which future is more desirable — a nation driven forward by hope or a nation frozen in place by fear — then act accordingly.