Sunday, March 23, 2014

(Do We Need A HOPE Diet?) Like So Many Aphorists-On-the-Make Before Them, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama Entered the Marketplace of Ideas Selling Tidy Homilies On the Very Same Concept:  Hope

Had it with"hope" yet?

Had about enough?

I know I've been suspicious of those empty calories since the early 90's. (Not to mention the RRaygun team's "Morning in America" 80's con game that birthed it in his Presidential Campaign PR as a U.S. slaying Frankenstein.)

But is there any nutritious substitute available? Tom Frank speaks:

It is a peculiar coincidence that the last two Democratic presidents, men unusually anxious to compromise and capitulate, have also chosen to market themselves as homegrown philosophers. More curious still, both have presented their hard-won insights in the great American tradition of positive thinking. Like so many aphorists-on-the-make before them, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama entered the marketplace of ideas selling tidy homilies on the very same concept: Hope.
Then again, perhaps there is something more to all this than coincidence. Maybe this high-minded creed and these two presidents’ fecklessness actually complement and explain one another. Maybe “hope” is the ideal philosophical doctrine for a party determined to dump its old constituents and chart a brave new course in a marketized world.
As a slogan, “hope” is vague and ethereal — as opposed to former, more earthly Democratic concepts like “shared prosperity” and “equal rights for all” — but perhaps that is what makes it the consummate brand identity for a party that so often triangulates away the concerns of its rank and file.
“Hope” is a noble word, one of the three so-called theological virtues mentioned in the Apostle Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. It has a very particular meaning for Christians, who use “hope” to describe their expectation of salvation. Once upon a time it meant something similar for Marxists, too, who counted on the swift arrival of a more earthly rapture. “The driving force of revolution is — hope,” says one character to another in André Malraux’s 1937 iconic novel of the Spanish Civil War,  ”Man’s Hope.”

What Democrats mean by the word is not quite so world-transforming. To them it is more of a personal attribute. The way Bill Clinton talked about “hope” in 1992 it was a fairly simple deal: He had it, the other guy didn’t. America under George Bush Senior was suffering a sort of hope drought, and if he, Bill Clinton, were to become president, hope would be restored to the parched fields of the Republic. The election, he said in a campaign video, was basically a hope referendum; it “presents America with a very stark choice: a choice between hope and fear.”
In a video called “The Man From Hope” (Clinton was born in Hope, Ark.), which was shown at the Democratic convention, the candidate recited a hope list:  He hoped he could improve himself every day, he hoped the nation would achieve togetherness, and finally he confided his hope that every American would come to love the children of America.
Perhaps recognizing how vacuous all this must have sounded, Clinton proceeded to the inevitable corollary of all Democratic hope-talk: that these run-of-the-mill wishes were in fact a little bit bold. “I still believe these things are possible,” he intoned. “I still believe in the promise of America. And I still believe in a place called Hope.”

In 1996, Clinton ran on the solid record he had built as a hope-restorer. In his speech to the Democratic Convention that year, he told how he had traveled among the common people of the land and learned “that hope is back in America. We are on the right track to the 21st century.” The president also settled back into his Oval Office easy chair to take careful account of the many imaginary mysteries and fatuous syllogisms that vex the true believer in this empty concept.
What he seemed to conclude, to judge by his campaign book for that year, “Between Hope and History,” was that hope was the opposite of everything that was bad, particularly “fear” but also “hatred”; and that, having understood hope to be so very good, not to mention on the side of history itself, we ought to follow its dictates wherever they led us. Then he enumerated those objectives, many of which he had already achieved and others which were sure to come: Balanced budgets, NAFTA, Empowerment Zones, and telecom deregulation.

History has often presented America with the choices of hope over fear, of lofty vision over adversity. In every age, Americans are required to meet the challenges history presents us and, as we do, to keep faith with both the values upon which our nation was founded and the hopes and dreams upon which people build their lives.
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.

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 fund raise like Republicans, Democrats who govern like Republicans, Democrats who basically become Republicans (for example, Zell Miller, the creator of the “HOPE Scholarship”) — 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 aren’t everything. There’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's most recent book is "Pity the Billionaire." He is also the author of "One Market Under God" and the founding editor of "The Baffler" magazine.)


Lenny Pepperidge 
The author is too kind to Clinton and Obama.  Often times, the simplest explanation for an event is the most likely, and the simplest explanation for Clinton and Obama is that they were simply con men.
If you believed in Obama and hope,
You could just hang yourself by rope,
Or go with another,
No, not Big Brother!
With the Green Party you can elope!

Clinton and Obama are just a couple of Gatsbys who are FAR too impressed with the rich white boys who have plundered and pillaged our country. They don't want to challenge the plutocrats, they want to be counted among them.

I consider Obama's hope rhetoric a telling index. He really did mean to compromise (excessively), govern from the middle, and secure moderate incremental gains. "Hope" basically meant: 'come on, guys, we don't have to hate each other; let's try to get along just a teeny bit.'
But, with the fraught exception of ACA, this approach was laughably off the mark. The right wing has become a ferocious, seditious beast that lives in a parallel universe with no bearing to the reality everyone else lives in. The "hope" of finding a governable middle didn't have a chance in hell, at least under Obama.
It's kind of amazing. The economic crash *could* have brought the same wake-up call that mobilized people against oligarchs after the 1929 crash. Instead, right at the moment when people were angry, a black guy got elected and all the anger and anxiety of white conservatives instantly turned into white-hot racist insanity.
Whatever they do in the way of rhetoric, Democrats should openly push the politics of class warfare. (When even Obama's conservative agenda is called class warfare, it's time to stop worrying about that label -- the FOX hounds will use it no matter what.) Tell people what has happened to them. Focus attention on obvious exploitation. Ignore the consultants who wring their hands if you say anything mean about Wall Street.
People are already angry. The fight has already started. The D party can win elections and actually do something if they get in the ring.

Frank is a progressive treasure.
I definitely want Hilliary primaried by a true liberal. I hope it happens. Oh, see I did it again, the hope-y thing. Never mind, I'm sure the bankers won't allow it.
Obama revealed his true Dino colors when he killed the public option.

@solarenergy Obama revealed his true colors several times after killing the public option. He has quite tragically fast tracked the privatization of our public schools, enabled Wall St. to continue their fraudulent business practices, secretly negotiated TPPA, cracked down with an iron fist on whistleblowers & Occupy, & increased the drone attacks.

susan sunflower
Jimmy Carter was crucified for telling Americans to put on a sweater, turn down the thermostat and reconsider their expectations ... both parties took note.  IMHO, Reagan's "morning in the America" really exploded the limits of acceptable cognitive dissonance (reality versus campaign fantasy)-- and America ate it up and demanded more -- in fact, they're still get all nostalgic and misty-eyed remembering it.
@susan sunflower Careful with that generalizing about America like it's not 300 million individuals.
I still remember Reagan as the head of a criminal White House, that got us into a lot of trouble, got a lot of people killed, and lay the groundwork for the erosion of the American middle class.

J.C. Miller
@susan sunflower Salon's President has named Mr. Reagan as an inspiration and mentor. 

susan sunflower
@J.C. Miller @susan sunflower 
I know - he largely stopped all that 1960-1970's "identity  politics" and labor dead in their tracks - many Americans believe that he got the country "back on track" - and as far as I can tell, all those born during and after the 1980's have been literally taught that his presidency was pivotal (in a good way) and "historic" -- when in fact it destroyed the "social contract" and with it much of the "soul of America" - very much responsible for where we are now.

canarymeinGreat column! Thomas Franks is a wonderful addition to Salon. He should be read more frequently on allegedly "left wing" publications like HuffPo and NYT. Why do they ignore him?


They aren't left wing.  Salon isn't either, but they feel they have to pretend, so we get Thomas Frank and Natasha Lennard.

What would that look like?
It's hard to imagine an enforceable contract with America type of hornswoggle like Chubbs Gingrich used, for the simple fact that you can't get Democrats and or leftists to agree on much. See: occupy. It all bogs down in process. The Repugnants, being authoritarians to the core, are easy to lead around by the nose: they WANT that. Not so, "the left". 
Look at the issues: racial/gender/class equality, environmental issues, labor issues, monetary and trade policy, foreign policy, a long list that could go on forever and every issue has its constituency demanding action. While, at the top of the putative "liberal" party hierarchy we have spineless, feckless careerists whose only real objective is gaining and retaining their positions. They cater to who pays the bills, no matter what all those constituences may or may not want. 
The DLC under the Clintons took over the party after the decade long beat down by the Bircher President godking chimp costar, and there's been nothing but center/right governance since. Does ANYBODY actually think that's going to change any time soon by way of the ballot box? With Hillary ramping up AGAIN? And what loathsome, vile totalitarian will the Rs put up? You just know it's going to be someone even worse than the vapid Richie Rich mormon that fronted for them last time. 
Hope... sure... I hope my car doesn't break down. Beyond that, I run out of hope and switch to beer.

susan sunflower

@KPinPT @susan sunflower 
Yes, the media runs the Presidential race as an "all important" (who'd you rather have a beer with) beauty contest -- and the parties have accepted that it's easier to be photogenic and personable than to run the risk of appearing the be an "egghead" like Stevenson or Jimmy Carter (or even Dukakis for that matter).  Bill Clinton's personal "failings" and good old boy demeanor softened the image of  his Rhodes Scholar brilliance -- George Bush had no brilliance to soften, but he hid his patrician roots in similar good-old-boy-ness (although interestingly enough presidential church attendance seems to have faded as a photo-op/necessity, except when used strategically, such as on the eve of war). 
Yes, they all want us to clap fervently to keep Tinkerbell alive -- because, neoliberal disaster capitalism aside -- it's all-important the we feel good, proud and hopeful about ourselves and America.

Amazing article.  Thomas Frank hits it out of the park again.  As to why Democrats would fall for this: it's not just that they fall for the hope bs, but that they are trapped into voting for Democrats no matter how bad they are by the threat that abortion will be made illegal if Republicans get in power.  They are held hostage with abortion and gay rights.  It would be helpful if brilliant people like Mr. Frank would come up with a way to break out of this trap. Let's talk about addressing the problem at its root.


@Splint Chesthair  
You're so reliable, Splint.
You're promoting a strangely static, fatalistic approach to politics and legislation.  Very conservative, really.  You're pretending that politicians' positions don't change in response to pressure - or bribery.

But of course, they do, and we talk about it all the time.  Some (fairly) recent examples:  Clinton "twisted arms in his own party" to pass the Republican "free-trade" agreements, NAFTA and WTO.  In the process, he made globalization Democratic dogma and laid the foundation for the Crash of '08He was very effective at it - unlike for liberal initiatives, which he consistently "bungled."

In 2008, during the campaign, the Bailout failed the first time (Democratic controlled Congress - and a lot of Republicans hated it).  But Obama had helped set it up, so he stopped campaigning, came back to Congress, and "twisted arms" among Democrats in the House to get it passedConsequently, he has full personal responsibility for saving the banksters' fortunes, and they know it.

Then, of course, there was Kucinich's famous plane ride with Obama, after which he gave up his principles and voted for the ACA (so did Sanders, likewise).

Both President and Congressional leadership have many ways of pressuring or bribing members, if they care to.  There are traditional names for some of these:  "logrolling;" "twisting arms;" "the bully pulpit" (invoking popular pressure - IF the bill is popular).  Most of our history depends on this stuff; it's basic politics.

Then, of course, there's the grim fact that, at the least, the Democrats have had 4 chances to change the filibuster by simple majority, 2 of them BEFORE Obama took office.  They didn't; they LOVE the filibuster.

You're also pretending there weren't corrupt deals made in private before bills like the ACA even reached Congress - but they've been widely reported.  That's why the Dems were fanatic about keeping single-payer advocates quiet and out of sight, even though they could have been used to apply pressure for a better deal - say, a public optionAnd with that kind of control, they had exactly the situation that Obama himself had said could lead to single payer.

What you're doing is called propaganda, and I suspect you're well paid for it.  You're one of the few good enough at it to qualify.

According to most of the comments seen here we're at the cusp of something big in Democratic politics.

Hope for change?


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