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Critical Optimism

By November 15, 2008January 15th, 2017Civic Life, The Long Road

My friend and colleague from the New School, Emma Bianchi, forwarded me an essay written by Judith Butler entitled “Uncritical Exuberance?” that cautions us against too enthusiastically identifying with the election of Barack Obama.  Butler discerns a danger in “believing that this political moment can overcome the antagonisms that are constitutive of political life, especially political life in these times.”

She also insists, rightly I think, that “there have always been good reasons not to embrace ‘national unity’ as an ideal, and to nurse suspicions toward absolute and seamless identification with any political leader.”

I share her concern about the disjunction between those who voted for Obama in California (60%) and those who voted against the legalization of gay marriage (52%) and about the way economic concerns may have trumped racist tendencies in voters who professed to have voted for Obama despite his race.  To the extent that Obama’s rhetoric of unity (“there are not red states or blue states, but the United States…”) colludes in masking such ambivalence, it must be critically challenged.

However, I hear in Obama’s politics something different, something more nuanced and mature. There is, of course, often the appeal to a certain unity, but always without denying difference.  Here is where a different form of politics becomes possible. This other politics is not animated by the naive ideal of post-partisanship, but by the sober courage to enact a more deliberative reality.

My experience this year as a local volunteer canvassing for Obama has pressed this recognition upon me. In face to face encounters with individuals, many of whom disagreed with me, I came to see the possibilities endemic to what Obama envisions as a “deliberative democracy.” George Packer, drawing on Obama’s The Audacity of Hope in this article from the New Yorker, clarifies the meaning of “deliberative democracy” this way:

it denotes a conversation among adults who listen to one another, who attempt to persuade one another by means of argument and evidence, and who remain open to the possibility that they could be wrong.

Deliberative democracy thus understood does not deny the antagonistic dimension of politics, nor does it enable the masking of ambivalence by an imagined unity; rather, it presumes the maturity of the citizenry and seeks to further cultivate it by engaging in honest, fallibilistic dialogue oriented always by the attempt to move us, incrementally to be sure, toward a more just way of living together.

If this is Obama’s understanding of politics and if he intends to allow his Presidency to be informed by such a politics, then in electing him, this “dangerously adolescent country” has taken a decisive step toward maturity.

Yet, however decisive, it is only a first step, for the difficulty of it comes in living it. To live it requires critical optimism: the sober analysis and recognition of the limits of our current situation animated by an unyielding refusal to allow our failures to deter us from pressing toward a more just community.

The grassroots organization of Obama’s campaign has the capacity to cultivate this sort of critical optimism. The technology it has embraced should enable it to pivot from the fund-raising and canvassing so critical to campaigning to the dynamic exchange of ideas so critical to governing.

If Obama can make this turn by empowering people to voice their views, offering them a resource by which they feel genuinely heard, and providing them with a certain level of transparency with regard to the mechanisms by which decisions are ultimately made, it will be transformative of American democracy.

Watch closely what happens as the campaign becomes, for here will be the first indication that such a transformation is really being attempted. I am not uncritically exuberant; yet I remain critically optimistic.

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