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Yes, We Can’t
From Ralph Waldo Emerson to Deval Patrick, the politics of hope have been a bust.
25 February 2008

Aging baby boomers see in Barack Obama’s down-the-line liberal voting record the promise of a left-wing revival. The college students and twentysomethings of the Millennial Generation see in him a way of pushing the quarrelsome, narcissistic baby boomers off the stage. Someone is bound to be disappointed by this extraordinary performance artist. But what both the boomers and the Millennials share is a desire to be part of what Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in the 1840s, called “the politics of hope.” Emerson wrote during a time of numerous experiments in utopian living. Obama—whose candidacy rests upon a standard utopian dichotomy between the earthly evils of poverty, injustice, war, and partisanship, and the promise of the world to come if we allow him to rescue us—appeals to the same Elysian strain in American and Western political life, largely in remission since 1980, when the 1960s truly ended.

America’s founding fathers were a famously hard-headed lot; they understood that government had to be structured to remedy the “defects of better motives.” Since self-serving interest groups—or factions, as Federalist 10 calls them—were an unavoidable element of liberty, interest could only be checked by competing interest. But while this insight is the main stem of our political tradition, there is another, albeit punctuated, branch—a utopianism that derives from the millenarianism of the sects that emerged from the Protestant Reformation and eventually populated America. “Utopian . . . ideas,” notes Daniel Flynn in his new history of the American Left, are as “American as Plymouth Rock.” This is why, as Sixties activist Bo Burlingham put it, “the Left bobs up and down in American history, a battered and leaky craft which often disappears beneath the tide, but somehow never sinks.”

In the wake of bloody utopian experiments in 1930s Europe, a slew of erudite authors launched compelling attacks on them. Jacob Talmon, Karl Popper, Raymond Aaron, Czeslaw Milosz, and Hannah Arendt laid waste to the historical, philosophical, sociological, and literary assumptions that supported communism and fascism. But their arguments didn’t endure, despite their power. By the mid-1960s, utopianism had again taken hold, and its lure was such that even Arendt, once a vocal opponent, found herself drawn to the religion of politics. Propelled by her disdain for America in general and the Vietnam War in particular, as well as the promise, as she saw it, of worker-control experiments in Europe, she effectively reversed much of her earlier writings.

She wasn’t alone. In 1949, Arthur Schlesinger had published The Vital Center, the canonical statement of disillusioned, empirical, and anti-utopian post–World War II liberalism. Schlesinger praised “the empirical temper” and a realistic sense of man’s limitations that recognized that “freedom means conflict.” Tracing the shared assumptions behind Brook Farm—the famous American utopian experiment of the 1840s—and the Soviet Union, he distanced liberalism from an optimism born of eighteenth-century rationalism and a nineteenth-century romanticism about progress, which left “too many unprepared for the mid-twentieth century.” Democracy, he wrote, “brooks no worship” of great leaders because “it knows that no man is that good.” And Schlesinger rebuked the leftists who, admiring the USSR, couldn’t believe that “ugly facts underlie fair words.” It was an intellectual tour de force.

But a little more than a decade later, Schlesinger—romanced by John F. Kennedy—walked away from these arguments. His admiration for the liberalism of a “moderate pessimism about man” was replaced by hero-worship and a sense of the dashing, aristocratic, articulate Kennedy as someone who could transcend standard political categories. Kennedy’s untimely death canonized the hard-nosed Massachusetts pol—with a mixed record at best as our first celebrity president—as JFK, a Lincoln-like martyr to civil rights, the King of Camelot who, if he had lived, would have made all right with the world. This Kennedy passed into Democratic Party legend and still inspires some today: remember Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign ads, featuring a picture of the young Clinton visiting the White House with a group of young student leaders and shaking hands with Kennedy. Kennedy, the ads implied, was passing the torch.

Obama, the celebrity-like candidate drawing on his generational appeal and noble bearing, fits better into Kennedy’s robes than Clinton did. Unlike Kennedy, who didn’t think of himself in messianic terms, Obama seems short on irony. Still, for lovelorn boomers and for youngsters who’ve known only the failures of the Bush years, Obama promises a Camelot-like reenchantment with politics. “I’ve been following politics since I was about five,” says TV host Chris Mathews. “I’ve never seen anything like this. This is bigger than Kennedy. [Obama] comes along, and he seems to have the answers, he’s the New Testament.” In this view, just as Kennedy’s victory in 1960 brought the country out of its Eisenhower-era stupor and put the Catholic question to bed for good, so an Obama victory will reenergize our politics and bring an end to poverty and racial division.

Hillary Clinton has searched in vain for a way to combat Obama’s appeal. In the recent Austin debate, she criticized Obama for borrowing generously from the speeches of his good friend and coeval Deval Patrick, the first African-American governor of Massachusetts. “Lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches,” she challenged in the debate’s one charged moment, “is not change you can believe in, it’s change you can Xerox.” Clinton’s arrow here was not aimed so much at plagiarism—all candidates borrow heavily from each other and from past campaigns—as at Obama’s claim to authenticity. But with the press, on both left and right, all but openly rooting for Obama, little came of her attack; more important, the press missed the true importance of the Patrick comparison.

Bay State journalist Rick Holmes describes Obama and Patrick, fellow Harvard Law School graduates, as “peas in a pod.” Patrick is the Obama campaign’s national cochair. Obama’s presidential campaign has modeled itself on Patrick’s gubernatorial campaign. Patrick’s 2006 campaign slogan was “Together we can,” while Obama’s is “Yes we can.” The brilliant Chicago political operative David Axelrod has managed both men’s campaigns. Both candidates have made persistent appeals to “the politics of hope.”

So Clinton’s criticism seems an opportune moment to ask how Patrick’s inspirational rhetoric has translated into governing a state where Democrats control both houses of the legislature—the likely scenario for Obama, too, should he take office. Patrick’s governorship is the closest thing we have to a preview of the “politics of hope”—and that governorship has been a failure to date. As Joan Vennochi observes in the Boston Globe, “Democrats who control the Legislature ignored virtually every major budget and policy initiative presented by a fellow Democrat.” Patrick’s record in office, Vennochi concludes, “shows that it can be hard to get beyond being the face of change, to actually changing politics.” His stock has sunk so markedly that Hillary Clinton carried the state handily against Obama in the Democratic primary despite, or perhaps because of, Patrick’s support for his political doppelgänger.

In one area, however, Patrick has achieved some of his goals. In thrall to the state’s teachers’ unions, he has partly rolled back the most successful educational reforms in the country. Most states gamed the federal testing requirements that were part of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. But Massachusetts, thanks to Republican governors William Weld and Mitt Romney, created the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability to ensure that the state’s testing methods conformed closely to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—federal tests that are the gold standard for measuring educational outcomes. In 2007, Massachusetts became the first state to achieve top marks in all four categories of student achievement. One of Patrick’s first efforts as governor was to eliminate the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability.

Patrick hasn’t delivered reform, much less the transformation that both he and Obama promise. This should come as no surprise. Obama’s utopian vision of transcending the interests that make up the fabric of our democracy is unlikely to fare any better than the “politics of hope” did in Emerson’s time. The key question at hand is whether Obama’s Edenic bubble bursts before or after the election.

Fred Siegel is a contributing editor of City Journal and a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art.

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