Book Review | ‘The Audacity of Hope’: Is it Time to Rethink Our Role in Democracy?

Book Review | ‘The Audacity of Hope’: Is it Time to Rethink Our Role in Democracy? Photo Credit: National Archives Store

Nearly twenty years after its original publication, Barack Obama’s statement on the political
landscape in the U.S. at the time eerily rings as true today as it did in 2006.

The notion that what ‘binds us together is greater than what drives us apart’ is truly the only path for a great society to pursue the vision of an equitable, diverse, accessible and inclusive nation. And our understanding and commitment to shared ideals, common values, agreed upon ethics, etc. contribute to the collective conscience of democracy. Certainly Obama was not the first orator to identify these characteristics of a thriving and pluralistic society, nevertheless his analysis of what the threats were to the civic fabric of the nation and what structures could be called on to meet those challenges was stunningly accurate.

The litany of issues that Obama describes in the book sound as if they were written last week. Fallout from the Dobbs decision that undermined Rowe vs. Wade has caused an uprising of voters who want to see a woman’s right to choose protected. In Audacity Obama shares the story of a conversation he has with protesters outside a campaign rally where they implore him to change his position on abortion. And yet he steadfastly maintains his position on the right to choose, albeit with nuance about those who are in the pro-life movement. He chooses to adjust his language in order to bridge the divide between the two factions, an effort that was noble then and needed again now.

It is worth assessing then whether or not the experiment of developing a vibrant democracy is even possible. Particularly with the other threats that existed at the time of the books writing as they do now.

Obama speaks of the drive for ultimate power by many in the political realm and reveals the methods used by politicians and political parties to maintain their positions as decision-makers. Gerrymandering district lines at all levels of governance so that one political party solidifies its hold on a seat for State Senate or the House of Representatives to the point where districts look like Rorschach Test examples. Voter suppression certainly has accelerated in recent election cycles and it was a concern of Obama’s in 2004. And claims of voter fraud have only heightened in the past twenty years with some elected officials still not willing to concede the victory of the current president in the 2020 election.

Another enormous impediment to democracy outlined in Audacity is how citizens access their news and information about daily decisions and events.

In the time period referred to in the book, some of the same news media actors as today were a part of defining how people understood political, social, and economic issues, with Fox News on one side and NPR (now MSNBC) on the other. The issue of where to access accurate and unbiased information is just as valid now as it was then, as is to not be overwhelmed by the cacophony of mind-numbing messages designed to stir emotions and not rational thought. At the time, however, the onslaught of 24 hour news cycles was just emerging and social media, with its penchant for mining data from users, had still not reached the crescendo of influence these platforms maintain today. Even so, synthesizing fact from fiction was a chore even then.

With these and endless other threats to democracy how do we ensure that we maintain a relatively free and open society?

In answering this question Obama is at his most instructive form. Certainly the more difficult route is to maintain the dogged pursuit of optimism even in the face of such staggering odds. Anyone who has participated in the environmental movement over the past sixty years has felt the enormous weight of pessimism about the planet. Nevertheless, there really is no choice but to remain hopeful and take action rather than be reactionary.

“To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk… Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”
~ Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

Obama provides us with the seeds for this hopeful activity within the context of identifying that which “binds us together (that) is greater than what drives us apart”. He makes the case for being cognizant of what we have in common rather than focusing on what our differences are, whether it be politically, socially, religiously, economically, etc. Is it not better to start a conversation with ideas where there is agreement rather than conflict? For example, he poses the question of “how might we begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life” by focusing on the common good.

And what is our current commitment to the health and well-being of everyone in society?

How tethered are we to the conceptual framework of the country, for example that ‘all men (and women) are created equal’?

That we have certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? For Obama here is the bedrock of our contract with one another, i.e. the fabric that community is woven from: “Those simple words are our starting point as Americans; they describe not only the foundation of our government but the substance of our common creed.”

How does this commitment to the common good then transform our society and ensure the longevity of the democracy that guides us? For Obama it is the seeing of ourselves in others. The recognition that their plight could be ours, and vice versa. The acknowledgement that we are all one family, albeit a mixed-up one at times, and therefore we should watch out for one another and each other’s kids. That while we have squabbles over how to govern, the real objective is that we should govern together. And that we are far better together than we are apart. And that hope can drive this process.

The audacity of hope. “That was the best of the American spirit, I thought – having the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary that we could restore a sense of community to a nation torn by conflict…”

His words ring true today, how will we respond to their call?