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The Audacity Of Hope

2016 revealed the deep divisions we have within our culture and politics, divisions made even deeper by the past eight years of Barack Obama’s rule.


Eight years ago a candidate arrived on the national scene who embodied the hopes of a generation. He was a political celebrity, eloquent and beloved by Hollywood and all the stars of the elite class. He commanded the attention of young Americans with a message of Hope and Change: boiled down to its essentials, a message that under his leadership, the nation that they believed had turned away from its true promise would become more like what they wanted it to be.
Michelle Obama last week admitted that after eight years of her husband’s leadership, she no longer has hope for her country. The incoming President, Donald Trump, has already responded with a message that ‘We have tremendous hope’. This warring hope shaming is mostly simple partisanship. But there is an implied real question under all of this: Who is that hope in? In what do we trust? In what do we believe?
For many Americans, 2016 will be remembered as a terrible year. It was a year in which the lack of faith in our institutions was laid bare. It was a year which revealed the deep divisions we have within our culture and politics, divisions made even deeper by the past eight years of Barack Obama’s rule. It was a year which, for many people, revealed the worst aspects of ourselves in politics and culture, with a resurgence of white identity politics that resembles the European populist nationalist movements on the right. The fear and frustration among these Americans is tangible and obvious, revealed every day on social media and in conversations with friends.
But for many other Americans, 2016 was a very good year. It was a year of relatively steady if unimpressive economic growth. It was a year where major media institutions which had run pieces designed to destroy the lives of private Americans suffered major legal backlash. It was a year that saw the degradation of the careers of leftist humorists like Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Larry Wilmore, and Amy Schumer, who managed the impossible task of making people not want to buy beer. It was a year that saw the reassertion of a belief in the essential greatness of the American project: that we should not be content with the lot handed to us by a government that rushes ahead of us, warding off all concerns, but that we deserve something more.
The biggest loser in 2016 was Washington, D.C. It is a town built on assumptions and norms that have now been utterly rejected by the people. They have no use for it in its current status, with Republican and Democratic parties that have more in common than not. The American people, even many on the left who voted for Hillary Clinton, despise their elites – they dislike being talked down to, lectured, chided for their beliefs, whether that be cultural, political, religious, or just that boys and girls are different. They have demanded a better class of elites – that they be led by people who offer them that most basic and indispensable aspect of a system of self-government: respect. And the people who voted for Donald Trump believe he will deliver it.
Two thousand years ago, give or take a few, there were a group of men from the east who journeyed across rocks and desert sand based on what they saw in the stars. They brought gifts to a child they had never met. They traveled for miles and miles based only on one thing: hope. The hope that there was something going on in front of their eyes more amazing than the human mind could comprehend – the birth of a messiah, the savior, the son of God. Something more than a son of a carpenter; something more than it is possible to believe, based just on what you see.
We should exit 2016 happy for what it revealed about the American people – that they are, for all the risks they are embracing now, deeply invested in the idea that America ought to be a better nation than it is, just as they were in 2008. We should enter 2017 hopeful for the future as we hope in our fellow man – keeping faith in the capacity for self-government, for work ethic, for neighborhood. The things that are essential to human freedom still live within the American people. We cannot know if they will find them again. But it seems to me that they are looking. And that is a very good sign indeed.