I saw a Facebook post today that cast a shadow over my afternoon. It was written by someone I greatly respect and admire, a person whose opinion I value highly, a person who has shaped my own thinking more than a little. Here’s what he wrote that saddened me: “Remember how unrealistically high hopes for an Obama presidency crashed when he actually began to govern? It’s far simpler to make stirring speeches than to effect genuine change. I am increasingly inclined to vote for Clinton’s pragmatism over Sanders’ utopian fantasies.”
Now before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I don’t want what I’m writing here to be taken as any kind of statement in support of or against any candidate. I do have a preference among the candidates, of course, but that’s something I keep mostly to myself. No, the matter that worries me, that saddens me, is not that my friend is leaning more toward Clinton than Sanders, the matter that deflates something inside me is that more and more we the people of these United States have become willing to give up our ideals of what’s possible and settle for what’s pragmatic. More and more we are willing to characterize our best hopes as “utopian fantasies” and sacrifice them on the cross of pragmatism, lamenting them and praying that the next generation will resurrect them even as we abandon them to the forces that will crucify them.
My friend and teacher is right that many of our high hopes for the Obama presidency have gone unfulfilled. We were, many of us, naïve in our assessment of how much pressure for change his election could really bring to bear on the status quo. We grossly underestimated the kind of backlash and opposition he would face in response to that pressure. We were unaware of any number of commitments and entanglements that would limit his effectiveness. And we seriously failed to anticipate the myriad ways in which a Black Man in the White House would become a catalyst who would surface the not-at-all latent systemic racism that is still too much a part of the fabric of our national culture…if there is such a thing as our national culture.
My friend and teacher is also right that it is far simpler to make stirring speeches than to effect genuine change. That’s absolutely true. But let’s not dismiss or discount the power of stirring speeches too quickly. I have lived long enough and have studied history enough to remember some powerful and sweeping changes that were initiated in this country by stirring words in both documents and speeches. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson ignited an effective change when he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” And yes, it’s true that “all men” meant “all property-owning white males” at the time, but deep inside us we knew that these words represented a higher ideal than that. It has taken a long time and extraordinary sacrifice by many and the work is certainly not finished, but most of us now know that all persons are endowed by their Creator with those inalienable rights and that Governments should not only be instituted and maintained by Men but by all persons. We know now that “consent of the governed” is supposed to apply to all the governed. It took us a long time and more than a little hardship to get there, but it is the ideal planted in those stirring words that has carried us forward through two centuries to a day when we can see it begin to blossom as a pragmatic reality.
In 1962 at Rice University, President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…” In more ways than any of us could have anticipated, that stirring speech—that stirring fragment of a stirring speech—shaped not only the remainder of the decade but our entire future. It gave us a goal. It gave us a national will to achieve something great. And in spite of the myriad voices that warned that it couldn’t be done, that it was not practical, that it was too dangerous, that it was not economically feasible, we did it. We did it, and in the doing of it we also initiated an era of tremendous inventiveness, creativity, education, industriousness and prosperity—a prosperity that didn’t trickle down from the wealthy top but that flooded out from our common center. I grew up in the flowing heart of that stirring speech, and it made me believe that if we put our minds and hearts to it we could, indeed, make our utopian fantasies a reality.
“I have a dream,” said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963. “I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream—one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men [sic] are created equal.’ I have a dream…” This stirring speech, too, rang through my childhood and adolescence, continued to stir me through adulthood and still brings tears to my eyes as I quote it to my grandsons. And yes, this dream, too, is still unfulfilled. This dream, too, is still far too much a utopian fantasy and not nearly enough a reality. So should we abandon this dream because it has proved far more difficult to realize than we imagined? Should we settle for a diminished national soul because racism is still with us a half century after this prophetic and stirring speech? Or do we repeat these words to ourselves and rekindle the power of that dream, that utopian fantasy, and let that stirring speech inspire us to keep working for a more perfect union, toward a day when we will rise up and live up to our creed?
“Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable” wrote John Kenneth Galbraith, and somewhere along the way during the last 15 years we all swallowed that poison pill. We have allowed cynicism to infect all our dreams. There is a spirit of meanness abroad in the land—how else to explain the popularity of the Hitleresque Mr. Trump and the disturbing Mr. Cruz? There is a loud voice shouting through our country to tell us what we cannot do, what we cannot accomplish, who we should not help, who we should not trust, and what we should not even try to imagine. That voice stirs us up to batter us down. It wants us to think that we cannot feed every hungry child and provide medical care for every person or provide job training and education for every young adult or….well, it’s a long list, the things that voice wants to tell us we cannot do. But I don’t believe it. I grew up listening to a different voice. I grew up listening to a voice that stirred our hearts by announcing a dream that called us to live up to our national creed. I grew up with a voice that inspired us to work toward the realization of our utopian fantasies, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…”
There is so much at stake in this divided nation of ours right now. There are too many who are being stirred by speeches full of anger, hatred, xenophobia, Islamophobia– energetic speeches that play on fears and resentments of every kind. And lest we forget, sometimes those speeches, too, have stirred many, have moved history and swept whole nations and even the world into an ocean of suffering.
So yes, we need to be ‘wise as serpents but innocent as doves’ as another stirring speaker once said long ago. He was the same one, though, who announced that the ultimate utopian fantasy was within reach. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” is the way his words are usually translated, but make no mistake–he wasn’t talking spiritual pie-in-the-sky. He was talking about a utopian world of justice and equality, a world where no one goes hungry, a world where everyone’s basic human needs are met. We’ve been working on making his vision a pragmatic reality for more than 2,000 years now. Lord knows it’s been difficult and costly, but I, for one, refuse to give up on it. I, for one, still believe it can happen. So yes, Candidate, please show us your pragmatism. It’s essential. But more essential than that, stir us with a vision.