October 22, 2008 If Barack Obama has done anything in the campaign for the presidency he has given Americans a sense of idealism in a politics mired in cynicism and partisan debate.
For the past eight years both political parties have been cemented in an ideological quagmire, each convinced their philosophy is the only answer to America's problems. The result has been a virtual end to bipartisanship and a willingness to compromise on the issues of the day.
Obama, in his book 'The Audacity of Hope,' has said it is possible to reclaim the American dream and has given us a vision that it might be realized. In the campaign thus far it is clear that Americans want change and while many are unsure what the direction such change should take, Obama's idealism has given many the sense that our politics can be better than we are if we can overcome the political gridlock the nation has found itself in since before the beginning of the current administration.
Too often we have expended our efforts playing the blame game.
"We need both cultural transformation and government action," Obama writes. "Like many conservatives, I believe in the power of culture to determine both individual success and social cohesion…but I also believe that our government can play a role in shaping that culture for the better-or for the worse."
Obama admits that it is difficult for politicians to talk about values in ways "that don't appear calculated or phony…because those of us in public life have become so scripted…that it becomes harder…for the public to distinguish between honest sentiment and political stagecraft.
"In few other professions are you required…to weigh so many competing claims…entirely steered by the winds of public opinion," Obama notes.
He sites the example of the late Senator Paul Simon as possessing the quality of "a sense of empathy, or the ability" to stand in somebody else's shoes "and see the world through their eyes."
I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society… "calling us all to task, conservative and liberal alike, to see beyond our limited"….sense of of partisan vision.
At the same time politicians must recognize the differences between ideology and values. "Values," Obama writes, "are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question." By so doing it is possible to recognize that our election campaigns are part of that larger democratic conversation called politics and that indeed we can transcend the mean spirited nature of the process which has characterized our civic debate of the past few years.
I must admit, as a politically liberal academic, Obama's idealism appeals to my sense of values. It strikes a deeply felt chord of belief within me that politics can be better than we have often demonstrated in the past.
I recognize of course like any institution politics is subject to all of the frailties of the human condition. That it is not always possible to inject fairness and objectivity into our political campaigns and the debates over the issues which divide us. That being said this does not mean that we should not try!
By injecting a sense of idealism into the process we can recognize the better nature of ourselves and for this reason alone Obama's appeal to hope has done, for both conservative and liberal alike, a great service.
As yet I do not know who I will vote for in November for I am unable to to foresee if Obama's vision will survive the rough and tumble process of electing our next president. I personally hope that it will, knowing in the end that process will tell us a great deal about ourselves and the way in which we conduct our democratic conversation this year.