When confronted with the suddenly
omnipresent theme of "change" in present-day American politics,
skeptics will likely scoff and say, "Change? So what else is new?"
And well they might, for in fact nothing is more familiar and (dare
one say) more unchanging than the high status accorded to
change in American life.
Still, we are seeing it illustrated
with particular vividness in the 2008 presidential campaign. Both
of the leading candidates vie for the title of "change agent in
chief." These appeals to change are so vast and all-encompassing
that the idea of change seems to have transcended the petty
requirement of enumerating specific attributes and has come instead
to represent change as a vast metaphysical and moral principle.
But recent politicians have not
invented this reflexive dependence on the concept of change. It is
everywhere. There are always examples close to hand. For example,
on the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New
York and Washington, we were informed by a prominent news
organization that 9/11 was "The Day America Changed." It is true
that on 9/11 something momentous and terrible happened, but this
slogan implied that something fundamental about America had been
altered forever. That claim seems excessive, for several
In the first place, as many of us
pointed out at the time, while the horrors visited upon the United
States by these attacks were a shock, they also were brutal
reminders of the true nature of the human condition, indications
that no nation or people can long sustain a vacation from
history. As C. S. Lewis observed in a magnificent
1939 address entitled "Learning in War-Time," which was cited by
many observers in the wake of 9/11, the "true perspective" on the
calamity of war is that it "creates no absolutely new situation,"
but instead "aggravates the permanent human situation so that we
can no longer ignore it," reminding us that "human life has always
been lived on the edge of a precipice." The change was in fact no
change at all.
This slogan was also ironic in a less
lofty sense. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York used the occasion
to harangue his audience about the bickering that had characterized
the long, bitter, and still inconclusive debates over what was to
be done with the Ground Zero site where the Twin Towers had
It was a moment that had symbolic
resonance far beyond the precincts of lower Manhattan. Although
there was a brief moment when the nation seemed powerfully united
in response to the attacks, that spirit faded very quickly, and the
political environment reverted to the sustained partisan acrimony
that had taken hold of the nation's politics during the mid-1990s
and continued through the government shutdown, the Clinton
impeachment, and the fiercely disputed election of 2000. Whatever
the change represented by 9/11 may be, it seems yet to have been
fully assimilated. We reverted to the former political antagonisms
with astonishing and disturbing rapidity.
So "change" is not always what it seems
to be in modern American public life. Not surprisingly, that
insight is itself nothing new. It was described over a century and
a half ago by Alexis de Tocqueville in a little-known chapter of
his Democracy in America, a chapter bearing this loaded
title: "How the Aspect of Society in the United States is at Once
Excited and Monotonous." As Tocqueville saw it, "the aspect of
American society is animated because men and things are always
changing, but it is monotonous because all these changes are
alike." Tocqueville attributed this paradoxical state to the fact
that Americans' passions tended uniformly to revolve around the
accumulation of wealth, so that while the pursuit was endless, the
goals were unchanging.
There is a great deal to be said for
this observation, but it is not the whole truth of the matter. For
one thing, it exaggerates the degree to which the pursuit of
material well-being even in a democracy can be a stand-in for other
passions, such as the passion for love or fame or status. And
genuine change does occur, though in a democracy it is not
always easy to discern where and how and why. Perhaps it is best,
as Socrates argued, to seek the answer to such questions not by
looking at the phenomena themselves, which may dazzle or mislead
us, but rather by examining changes in the meanings of words, where
such shifts of meaning may be more reliably reflected.
Take the following simple example. One
can witness changes in Americans' understanding of love over the
course of the 20th century by observing changes in the use of the
word "love" in the lyrics of popular songs. The examples here are
endless, but there is no mistaking the change in both tone and
meaning that occurred in the 30 years between, say, "Our Love is
Here to Stay" (1937), the last of the great Gershwin brothers'
songs, to the Doors' "Love Me Two Times (I'm Goin' Away)" (1967).
Something did change during those years.
Yet despite how much we believe
ourselves to be enveloped by change, we are usually unaware of how
little has actually changed so far as our ideas are concerned since
the upheavals of the 1960s. After all, the Doors' song is now over
40 years old. And yet I can rely for certain on the fact that
nearly all of my students will know who the Doors were, will know
the lyrics to their songs, and will know the lyrics to an
astonishing number of popular songs that were already considered to
be venerable classics when I was in college in the 1970s. This is
Coincidences, Chesterton said, are
spiritual puns, so perhaps it was not really a coincidence when,
shortly after talking with my students about how we treat the
subject of love much differently in modern music than in earlier
times, I found myself at the supermarket and heard the strains of
the Rolling Stones' "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." It seemed
strange to hear the lyrics of this grubby adolescent song in a
supermarket, of all places, but what made it especially strange was
precisely the fact that it was not strange, that it was the
most commonplace thing imaginable. And that fact points toward
something that has not changed in the past four decades.
My point here is that, contrary to our
dubious pride in our cutting-edge progressivism as a culture, and
contrary to the myth that contemporary American culture is an
endlessly changeable cornucopia of fertile invention, we are in
fact stuck in the Sixties. We are stuck in the grip of certain
prejudices, shibboleths, and cultural predispositions that are long
overdue for a probing reexamination and a serious overhaul.
Whence this raging cultural stagnation,
self-disguised as kaleidoscopic change? It could be attributed
partly to the oppressive demographic overrepresentation of the
ever-voluble baby boomers, for whom every human experience-formerly
sex, now menopause and receding gum lines-is seemingly being
undergone for the first time because it is the first time that
they have undergone it. But the problem is deeper than that.
It goes to the continuing hold of certain ideas, which are no
longer new but somehow have not yet been understood to be old and
The Culture of
Those ideas are well represented, once
again, by certain words. Take, for example, the term
"counterculture." When future historians look back at our own era,
one of the oddities they will surely notice is the peculiarly
exalted status of this word and the idea behind it. What it marks,
among other things, is the way that a self-consciously oppositional
ethos has become dominant among college-educated and culturally
aspirant Americans. This observation was at the heart of journalist
David Brooks's hilarious but also thoroughly accurate depiction of
the "bourgeois bohemian" in his book Bobos in Paradise.
Not so very long ago, perhaps even as
recently as 1964 or so, the quest for liberation from social
convention carried certain perils. Today we have made that quest
into a new social convention in its own right, with its own canons
of respectability, such as the routine celebration of books and
movies and other works of art solely on the grounds that they are
"troubling" or "transgressive," qualities now deemed to be
peculiarly meritorious in and of themselves quite apart from their
Of course, one of the many dirty little
secrets of this ethos is that it rests upon a veiled form of class
snobbery. There must always be certain unnamed "others," the gaping
suburbanites and mindless rural rubes who are thought to sustain
and uphold the philistine conventions from which "we" perpetually
need to be liberated. But those "others" seem increasingly shadowy
and hard to locate in reality. The specter of a monolithic "red
state" America is an easy way to posit the continued pernicious
existence of such benighted "others."
As a resident of a certifiably red
state, however, I can authoritatively testify that we are all Bobos
on this bus-or at least most of us. The new convention has been
triumphant beyond its wildest dreams and now suffuses our popular
culture and our advertising, assimilated into the mainstream in the
most remarkable and incongruous ways.
Several years ago, my wife and I stayed
in a meticulously restored Victorian inn in the meticulously
restored Victorian town of Cape May, New Jersey. Two ex-artists,
refugees from the East Village, run the inn, and throughout the
house they display their utterly predictable "cutting edge" works
(cutting-edge circa 1920, that is)-rather unimaginative montages
and collages juxtaposing newspaper headlines with found objects and
photographs. One might never even have noticed this artwork were it
not that the owners posted a tasteful little sign at the entrance
"warning" guests that some images might be "disturbing."
This was a sad and silly little conceit
on their part-the thought that any of their customers would even
notice, let alone be disturbed by, their artwork. And, truth be
told, I suspect they do not believe it themselves, else they would
never have posted the art throughout the house. But it remains
terribly important to them to pretend to themselves that they are
still pushing envelopes and slashing away at bourgeois complacency.
They need that thrill of excitement to give meaning to their
lives-even if (especially if) what they are actually doing is
running a small business in the time-honored American way, the
quintessential bourgeois enterprise catering to mostly well-heeled
customers, operating that business out of a quintessentially
bourgeois domestic structure worth millions of dollars, and
spending the bulk of their time worrying about city ordinances and
real estate taxes and college tuitions for their kids rather than
clashing with the squinty-eyed mores and narrow minds that
represent the "culture" against which they define themselves as
"counter," but which exists largely in their own lavish
Like the wealthy, suburban lapsed
Catholic who still fancies himself a radical follower of Dorothy
Day because he still cares so deeply about social justice, or the
hot-dog TV journalist who makes a seven- or eight-figure salary but
still thinks of himself as a "marginal man" who lives off his "shoe
leather reporting" and a willingness to "speak truth to power"-or
like the countless lawyers with tattoos, or stockbrokers sporting a
single rakish diamond-stud earring, or professors with dreary grey
ponytails, or middle-aged women who cannot bring themselves to
dress their age-these New Jersey innkeepers are in the grip of an
idea and a personal mythology that they nevertheless do not see as
such and from which they have no desire to free themselves.
There is profound self-deception at
work in people who luxuriate in the fruits of worldly success while
disdaining the personal habits and cultural conditions that make
such success possible. There is also a strangely hidden compulsion
behind the need for such condemnation. Yet somehow even the most
incongruous social conventions can take hold for a time, and in our
era, the conjunction of a dutiful other-directedness with a dutiful
rebelliousness seems by now so entrenched and commonplace as to be
almost natural. Its existence would make it very challenging to be
truly countercultural if one is of a mind to be.
The Danger of Abstract
"Counterculture" is an abstract word,
and abstract words-such as "change"-play an essential role in such
acts of cultural sleight of hand. Abstract words, of course, also
are carriers of our highest ideals and aspirations: "justice,"
"democracy," "dignity," and "liberty." But it is for precisely this
reason that we should beware of them and treat them as precious
commodities, not to be wantonly profaned or corrupted. We should
exercise skepticism, what Santayana dubbed "the chastity of the
intellect," a guarded disposition that does not yield its favors
readily or to the first ardent suitor.
That caution is especially appropriate
in a modern democratic culture, so it is not surprising that
Tocqueville took a keen interest in it and had insightful
observations about it. Indeed, one of his most penetrating chapters
was aimed at precisely this subject. To get the full flavor of his
insights, it is necessary to quote them at some length:
It has already been shown that
democratic nations have a taste and sometimes a passion for general
ideas, and that this arises from their peculiar merits and defects.
This liking for general ideas is displayed in democratic languages
by the continual use of generic terms or abstract expressions and
by the manner in which they are employed.
Democratic nations are passionately
addicted to generic terms and abstract expressions because these
modes of speech enlarge thought and assist the operations of the
mind by enabling it to include many objects in a small compass. A
democratic writer will be apt to speak of capacities in the
abstract for men of capacity and without specifying the objects to
which their capacity is applied.…
These abstract terms which abound in
democratic languages, and which are used on every occasion without
attaching them to any particular fact, enlarge and obscure the
thoughts they are intended to convey; they render the mode of
speech more succinct and the idea contained in it less
Men living in democratic countries,
then, are apt to entertain unsettled ideas, and they require loose
expressions to convey them. As they never know whether the idea
they express today will be appropriate to the new position they may
occupy tomorrow, they naturally acquire a liking for abstract
terms. An abstract term is like a box with a false bottom; you may
put in it what ideas you please, and take them out again without
To which one can only add something
that Tocqueville did not anticipate but which is quite consistent
with his observations: that the looseness and flexibility of
abstract ideas may serve to conceal the fact that what appear to be
unsettled ideas are in fact much more settled, even stagnant, than
they appear to be.
Tocqueville's words suggest another
danger: that these words can thrill and intoxicate and that their
meaning can be made to expand beyond all bounds and inflate into
something genuinely dangerous, or at any rate something deeply
antithetical to their original meaning. It also suggests that a
democratic culture may be particularly susceptible to such
Hence, yet another reason to be
attentive to the ways in which abstract words become misused. To
illustrate this point, look more closely at two such words:
"experiment" and "promise." Both are abstractions of extraordinary
importance in American public discourse. Both speak to values and
characteristics that are thought to be centrally American. But both
have largely lost their original meaning and have become drafted
into usages that serve to undercut some of the very things they
once served to support.
The Evolution of
First, the word "experiment." It is a
word with its roots in science but that came to express one of the
central dynamics of the American nation. We speak constantly of
something that we call "the American experiment." Few phrases
better capture the sense of America itself as a forward-looking
enterprise undertaken on the behalf of all humanity, where
traditions are questioned, propositions tested, and countless lives
are given a fresh start. But it is a word susceptible to all kinds
of inflationary misunderstanding and misuse. What began with
careful usage has become a vastly overextended idea of experiment
as open-ended improvisation, unfettered and undirected exploration,
with nothing fixed and nothing authoritative to stand in the way of
self-assertion and social transformation.
One does not have to look very hard to
find examples of the fact that, in today's culture, nothing stands
in the way of our experimenting. Three examples are indicative.
An attorney for the American Civil
Liberties Union named Marjorie Heins casually invoked it during the
course of a March C-SPAN appearance in connection with the suit
brought against the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) by the
performance artist Karen Finley and several others. You may
remember Ms. Finley for her daring experiments with the anatomical
uses of chocolate. She and the other plaintiffs had been denied NEA
grants on the grounds that their works offended general standards
Ms. Heins thought the NEA's policy
deplorable and marshaled all the familiar arguments as to why this
was the case. But the clinching argument, in her mind, was her
declaration that "we are as a nation collectively involved in a
great experiment" and that our national commitment to experiment
demands that we be "mature" enough to "contribute" some portion of
our tax dollars to the underwriting of forms of expression that we
do not like. Apparently, "experiment" is so central to our national
life that we must subsidize it.
A rather more disturbing example of the
language of "experiment" appeared in a December 1997 op-ed piece in
The New York Times by the eminent Harvard law professor
Laurence Tribe. This column dealt with the looming possibility of
human cloning. Tribe had formerly asserted that such cloning should
be prohibited, but now he had changed his mind. A society, he said,
that "bans acts of human creation for no better reason than that
their particular form defies nature and tradition is a society that
risks cutting itself off from vital experimentation, thus
losing a significant part of its capacity to grow." What looks to the
unaided eye like social disintegration is merely the next phase of
the endless American experiment.
Neil Postman, one of the most
perceptive critics of American education and popular culture,
suggested in one of his books that we ought to install the idea of
America as an experiment as the central narrative of American
history. This means for him that we will now define America as
"a perpetual and fascinating question mark," "a series of stunning
and dangerous questions" that "will always remain unanswered." Or,
as he says in another place, we have always been a nation "formed,
maintained, and preserved on the principle of continuous
To some of us, a nation built on the
principle of continuous argumentation sounds, at best, like a
vision of America as a giant and endless faculty meeting. Moreover,
it mistakes the means for the end, supposing that continuous
argumentation itself can be a substitute for truth rather
than a means of discerning truth.
More important, such sentiments beg the
question of what an experiment is and of what it means to live in a
country embodying an experimental spirit. A glance at the
dictionary is helpful. It understands experiment in several ways,
all of which strongly suggest the guiding idea of trying or
testing. An experiment is always related to some specific
end, some well-defined goal, some truth, hypothesis, pattern, or
principle to be confirmed or disconfirmed. The key to an effective
experiment lies in the careful definition of the problem, a
definition that does not change in midstream and that always seeks
to identify and harness regularities of nature rather than seek to
transform those regularities.
The Framers' View of
America as an Experiment
In that sense, the American nation most
definitely was an experiment at the outset. The Framers of
the Constitution and the early generations of American national
political leaders thought of it in precisely this way. Alexander
Hamilton began the first paper of the Federalist with these
[It] seemed to have been reserved to
the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide
the important question, whether societies of men are really capable
or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice,
or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political
constitutions on accident and force.
The word "experiment" is not used here,
but the concept certainly is; and the word itself occurs in 24 of
the papers in the Federalist-always used in a very
matter-of-fact, practical, and unmystical way, with the clear
implication that experiments succeed, experiments fail, and that is
the process by which knowledge progresses. In contrast, it is
useful to ask ourselves whether there is any conceivable way that
Marjorie Heins or Laurence Tribe or Neil Postman, or others who so
freely employ the language of experiment, would ever be willing to
concede that the "experiments" they support had "failed." Are we
perhaps instead talking about a commitment that is abstract and
dogmatic rather than truly experimental?
In any event, the word "experiment" was
used quite conspicuously by George Washington in his First
Inaugural Address, where he echoed Hamilton's view almost exactly:
"The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of
the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps,
as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment intrusted to
the hands of the American people."
This new American regime was best
understood as a careful practical experiment, not an open-ended
utopian undertaking in human engineering or
consciousness-transformation or anarchism, and the two principal
ends of the experiment are made clear in Washington's statement.
They are the preservation of liberty and the republican model of
In other words, Washington was talking
about freedom and self-governance-or, as we sometimes put it,
ordered liberty. He was not talking about an open-ended commitment
to achieving absolute equality of condition, let alone the
satisfaction of every desire and the drying of every tear. To meet
with measurable success even in the stated goals of the experiment
would be a fantastic and unprecedented achievement, difficult of
By the time Abraham Lincoln gave his
1838 speech on "The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions"
before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, the results
of the experiment were in. "America had been felt to be an
undecided experiment," said Lincoln; "now, it is understood to be a
successful one," having conclusively proved "the capability
of a people to govern themselves."
But success, he continued, brought its
own perils. As the Revolutionary generation passed away, there was
the danger that the commitment to the republic would flag now that
the success of the experiment was no longer at issue and the
younger generation-the Children of the Experiment, so to speak-were
left without a proper field of activity for their own heroic
aspirations. Lincoln worried that "the temple must fall" unless
"other pillars" be provided to take the place of the Founding
generation. He saw a perpetuation of the spirit of sober
experimentalism and experimental urgency as an essential part of
any effort to perpetuate our political institutions. Perhaps this
was why, 25 years later at Gettysburg, he recurred to the idea that
the Civil War itself was a "testing" of whether the product of such
a republican experiment "can long endure."
Lincoln was right. Part of the value of
the idea of "experiment" is the sense of alertness and
responsibility that it awakens in us. Hence its constant use in our
We find the language of experiment
featured prominently, for example, in Franklin D. Roosevelt's
rhetoric. In his First Inaugural Address, a speech at a critical
moment in American history that is often praised as an example of
the pragmatist spirit in American politics, Roosevelt declared that
the economic conditions of the day demanded "bold, persistent
experimentation." We should "take a method and try it: if it fails,
admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."
Clearly, Roosevelt's usage was different from Washington's or
Lincoln's, but it still clearly linked the process of
experimentation with verifiable results. Like a good pragmatist, he
recognized that an experiment, if it really is an
experiment, can fail.
Our Expansive Idea of
As these examples illustrate, by
Roosevelt's time the idea of experiment was beginning to slip its
moorings. Roosevelt's language was already pointing toward the
infinitely expansive idea of experiment that we increasingly hear
invoked today. Such a promiscuous use of "experiment" can become
the emptiest kind of banality ("life is an experiment"). More
often, it serves as a way of putting an attractive face on the
impulse to set aside all established norms, with uncertain effects
(the husband who declares to his wife that he wishes to
"experiment" with extramarital dalliances, or the teenager who
"experiments" with drugs).
Not surprisingly, one finds the same
slippage of meaning, at the same historical moment, in the faithful
register of popular music. Cole Porter's 1933 comic musical "Nymph
Errant" opened and closed with a witty song entitled
"Experiment." Porter used the word in a spirit of
lightness and self-conscious irony, but the more expansive meaning
was catching on, and in this more expansive usage, a spirit of
"experiment" could be more than willing to entertain the wholesale
transformation of the American government and nation. And why not?
In this view, the American project, to the extent we can even talk
about such a thing, is radically unfinished and perhaps not even
anything to take any great pride in-yet.
Fortunately, however, nothing is static
or fixed. We are continually remaking, reinventing, and recreating
ourselves as a people. Democratic ideals are being recast, and
civic identity is in flux. Anything is possible.
A salient expression of this theme
appeared in the late Richard Rorty's book Achieving Our
Nation, an attempt to revive the fortunes of reformist thought
in American political life and, more generally, its impact on
efforts by left intellectuals to reclaim the mantle of patriotism
for themselves. Rorty believed it was possible for the
left to build upon an American "civic religion" put forward by such
"prophets" as Walt Whitman and John Dewey and channel patriotic
sentiment into "progressive" causes:
That civic religion centered around
taking advantage of traditional pride in American citizenship by
substituting social justice for individual freedom as our country's
principal goal. We were supposed to love our country because it
showed promise of being kinder and more generous than other
countries…. This was a counsel of perfection rather than
description of fact. But you cannot urge national political renewal
on the basis of descriptions of fact…. You have to be
loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake
up every morning. Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no
chance of becoming actual.
The last two sentences are especially
startling, but the statement as a whole serves to make the point
that there are some ways in which America is not an
experiment and that it is unhelpful, even absurd, to talk as if it
were. There is a big difference between saying, as Lincoln did,
that the great achievements of our ancestors are fragile and ever
in need of support and bolstering and saying that our country does
not really exist and does not deserve our respect because it does
not correspond with the dreams of enlightened intellectuals.
This is the language of "unfinished
nation" taken to an extreme. "Achieving" our country is the sort of
ungrammatical phrase that always should be a tip-off that an
intellectual heist is taking place. We do not use the word
"achieve" in the way Rorty has tried to use it. One accomplishes a
task; one does not "accomplish" a country. One lives in it-unless,
that is, one is a pragmatist who urges us to live in a dream
country rather than the one that actually sustains us.
The contrast between the earlier and
later understandings of "experiment" serve to illuminate the
contrasting views of "patriotism" in the campaigns of John McCain
and Barack Obama. To a very considerable extent, voters in 2008 are
faced with a choice between, on the one hand, a candidate who
offers restoration of a basically sound nation with a sound and
proud history to its former self and, on the other, a candidate who
offers the redemption of a nation with a shameful and disappointing
history that has been sound only in its ideals and whose greatness
is something yet to be fully achieved.
In this sense, it was striking when
Obama, answering a question from a seven-year-old girl at a
campaign stop in Elkhart, Indiana, opined that "America is no
longer what it could be, what it once was. And I say to myself, 'I
don't want that future for my children.'" Obama seemed to be trying
to have both sides of the argument at once: both redemption ("what
it could be") and restoration ("what it once was").
They are both attractive in certain ways, but they are not
One can make a similar point about
Obama's use of the word "promise," which became the dominant theme
in his Democratic nomination acceptance speech, "The American
Promise." In structuring his speech around the idea
of an American promise, Obama was also reaching back to one of the
formative texts of American liberalism: Herbert Croly's 1909 book
The Promise of American Life.
Croly had used the term "the promise of
American life" to refer to "the steady advance of democratic values
and steady amelioration of social and economic problems"-in short,
to progress that is meant to get beyond American ideals of
individualism and limited government, ideals that he thought
stunting and pernicious. In Promise, he provided a
revisionist version of American history from the standpoint of the
steady rise of progressive, cooperative, communitarian,
corporatist, and nationalist ideals implemented by a large,
activist national state.
Croly saw the conflict between
Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson as central to the struggle
for American identity and thought that Jefferson, despite his
defense of liberty, deserved to lose. But he wished somehow to
split the difference, at least partially, and seek arrangements
that would use "Hamiltonian means" to achieve "Jeffersonian ends,"
moving from laissez-faire to social intelligence and replacing the
Constitution with more democratic and up-to-date tools of
It was a flawed vision that glossed
over the difficulty of reconciling those means with those ends and
was based ultimately on a misunderstanding of human nature as
infinitely malleable. Most important for our purposes is the
fact that it misconstrued the idea of "promise," a perfect example
of the Tocquevillean false-bottom box in action. Croly invested the
word "promise" with his own meanings, taking it to denote a
potential yet to be fulfilled or yet to prove itself, just as we
speak of a "promising" rookie baseball player or a "promising" new
Promise: Looking to the
Past Rather than to the Future
This, however, is a derivative and
secondary meaning of the word "promise." In its foundational sense,
a promise is something "sent forward" (as its Latin etymology
implies): an agreement, a contract, a covenant, a vow to do
something or not to do something. A promise in this sense is
a way that the past holds sway over the present. In a republic,
where the people live by laws that they dictate to themselves, the
law itself is a kind of promise in the same way that wedding vows
or New Year's resolutions are promises.
A promise in this fundamental sense is
not oriented toward the future, but toward the past. It is a way
that the past restrains the present for the present's own good and
assumes authority over it: as when we insist, "You
promised!" One might think of Odysseus passing by the
sirens, lashed to the mast of his ship-his self-bondage in that
instance serving as a powerful symbol of the role that a promise
takes in the moral orientation of life. In this sense, the
Constitution itself, so often the object of scorn from Croly and
other Progressives, can make a strong claim to be the promise of
American life that serves as the basis for all our other civil laws
and all our other public promises. Far from being dispensable, it
is the basis of all else.
Interestingly, Martin Luther King, Jr.,
made use of a similar notion of promise. When he delivered his "I
Have a Dream" speech in Washington on August 28, 1963, 45 years to
the day before Obama's nomination acceptance speech, he too used
the language of promise in its older, pre-Crolyan sense. He did so
with the marvelously homely, everyday image of a bank check as a
In a sense we've come to our nation's
capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote
the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of
Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every
American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men,
yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the
"unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of
Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this
promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.
Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the
Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked
But we refuse to believe that the bank
of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are
insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this
nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will
give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of
There is no doubt that King was calling
upon an imperfect nation to do better, to live up to its creed. But
he was also affirming that creed, affirming the "magnificent" work
of the American Founders and the founding documents and referring
back to them as justification for his march on Washington. He was
couching his political acts in the terms of a specific promise that
had been made in the past. He was saying, in effect, "Make good on
the promise. Follow through!"
Obama's Understanding of
Obama's use of promise in his
acceptance speech is quite different. The word "promise" is used
many more times-32 by my count-and in many different and shifting
senses, equivocally and promiscuously, so that one is never certain
at any given time what kind of promise is being referred to and
what source it derives from. King's clean, crisp, precise, and
unpretentious use of the term has been lost in favor of
slipperiness, inflationary excess, and diffuse meaning. A few
passages are instructive:
It is that promise that has always set
this country apart-that through hard work and sacrifice, each of us
can pursue our individual dreams but still come together as one
American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue
their dreams. as well….
We meet at one of those defining
moments, a moment when our nation is at war, our economy is in
turmoil, and the American promise has been threatened once
[W]hat is that American promise? It's a
promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own
lives what we will, but that we also have the obligation to treat
each other with dignity and respect.
It's a promise that says the market
should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that
businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create
American jobs, look out for American workers, and play by the rules
of the road.
[O]urs is a promise that says
government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is
that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm and
provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and
our toys safe; invest in new schools, and new roads, and science,
Our government should work for us, not
against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure
opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence,
but for every American who's willing to work.
That's the promise of America, the idea
that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or
fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother's
keeper, I am my sister's keeper.
That's the promise we need to keep.
That's the change we need right now. So…let me spell out
exactly what that change would mean if I am President….
And we will keep our promise to every
young American: If you commit to serving your community or our
country, we will make sure you can afford a college education.
[N]ow is the time to finally keep the
promise of affordable, accessible health care for every single
American. If you have health care…my plan will lower your
premiums. If you don't, you'll be able to get the same kind of
coverage that members of Congress give themselves….
And now is the time to keep the promise
of equal pay for an equal day's work, because I want my daughters
to have exactly the same opportunities as your sons….
Individual responsibility and mutual
responsibility, that's the essence of America's
[P]assions fly on immigration, but I
don't know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her
infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring
But this too is part of America's
promise, the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength
and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort….
[I]t is that American spirit, that
American promise, that pushes us forward even when the path is
uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that
makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that
better place around the bend.
Clearly, for Obama the word "promise"
has an almost incantatory power, but what, based on these passages,
can one to say about its meaning for him?
First, one can conclude that it
has no fixed meaning and that what meaning it does have shifts back
and forth between older and newer acceptations of the word, between
King's sense and Croly's, and sometimes indeterminate territory
that would not seem to belong to either one.
Second, there is almost nothing
in personal and public life that cannot be touched by this promise.
It will keep our toys safe, bridge divides, and bind us together in
spite of our differences. It appears to be a commitment, which
quite possibly has existed from the very founding of the nation, to
the idea that we are fundamentally responsible for ourselves, that
we are also our brothers' keepers, that we should have equal pay
for equal work, and health care, and a college education for all.
We never know who made these promises on our behalf, or when, only
that we are entitled to seek their fulfillment.
This is a perfect image of how a
powerful abstract word's dangerous hypertrophy can lead to both
galloping inspiration and massive confusion. It is also worth
noting that Obama consciously excises one possible meaning of the
promise. The speech concludes with these words:
At this moment, in this election, we
must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that
promise, that American promise, and in the words of scripture hold
firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.
Interestingly, even though Obama made
explicit reference to his words' source in Scripture, he also
truncated this quotation in a highly significant way. The words of
Hebrews 10:23 to which he alludes actually read like this: "Let us
hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess, for
the one who made the promise is faithful."
This is not a small omission. It
removes the very basis of hope, as the original writer understood
hope, by removing the assurances offered by the faithful one, who
is Jesus Christ. The words Obama quotes are merely the empty husks
left behind when the theological content is removed. How can one
speak of the promise when there is no one anymore doing the
promising? The word "promise" has, by his speech's end, become
little more than a floating signifier that is not attached to any
determinate source or destination but retains only a faint moral
glow of its lofty origins.
And so we return to the place where we
began: to the problem of powerful abstract words-words like
"promise," "experiment," "hope," and "change"-that are central to
the commitments and aspirations of our civilization, that rightly
play a role in our self-conception and our democratic political
rhetoric, but that over time can easily be expanded or distorted
into something very different from their most fundamental meanings.
If Tocqueville was right, this is one of the intrinsic pathologies
of democracy, a tendency in democratic societies ever to be guarded
But Tocqueville was not a fatalist or a
determinist about such matters. He gives us ample reason to hope
that the pathologies to which democracy is prone-the tyranny of the
majority, the dominion of individualism, and the like-can be
effectively combated and that our democracy need not succumb to
Therefore, we Americans are not
condemned to wallow forever in a bog of floating signifiers. Our
most important words can mean something if we are
intentional and attentive and rigorous in our own use of them and
equally demanding of our public figures, whatever their ideological
standpoint may be.
We should resist the grandiose
invocation of themes of constant transformational change, of
ceaseless experimentalism, and of the endless quest to fulfill
America's ever-elusive "promise." At the same time, we should keep
in mind that many of these same words, rightly understood,
represent concepts and dispositions that lie at the very foundation
of American life. The United States itself has its moral moorings
in the great abstractions that are limned in the Declaration of
Independence, the document to which King himself finally
The current presidential campaign
provides us with an opportune moment to revisit our misconceptions
and replace them with better and more fully grounded ones-or, short
of that, at least to resolve to be resolutely skeptical when we
hear important abstractions employed with imprecision,
equivocation, and obscurity. We should demand that our leaders fill
such abstractions with actual content.
Perhaps a greater attention to our
political language could even lead us to rethink our fetishistic
attachment to the myth of "change" in which we have enveloped
ourselves for the past four decades. Perhaps that is too much to
hope for, but one can dream.
And yes, I too have a dream. It is less
exalted than King's dream, but like his, it would be enormously
conducive to the improvement of American life. I have a dream that
someday, strolling in the aisle at the grocery store, I will be
brought up short by hearing the strains, not of "I Can't Get No
Satisfaction," but of the Gershwins' "Our Love Is Here to
That would be a change that I could
believe in. It might even be the change, or one of the changes,
that we need. At the very least, it would be a very promising
Wilfred M. McClay
is SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he is also Professor
of History. He has also taught at Georgetown University, Tulane
University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Dallas,
and is currently a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars in Washington, a Senior Fellow at
the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and a member of the Society of
Scholars at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.
 Wilfred M. McClay, "The Continuing Irony of
American History," First Things, No. 120 (February 2002),
 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other
Addresses (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1979), p. 49.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in
America, trans. Phillips Bradley (New York: Knopf, 1945), Vol.
2, p. 228.
 David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New
Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon and
 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol.
2, pp. 69-70.
 "NEA Decency Standards, C-SPAN Washington
Journal, March 31, 1998, ID # 102740, Tape 98-03-31-06-1, Purdue
University Public Affairs Video Archives.
 Laurence H. Tribe, "Second Thoughts on
Cloning," The New York Times, December 5, 1997, p. A23.
 Neil Postman, The End of Education:
Redefining the Value of School (New York: Knopf, 1995).
 Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1,
in The Federalist, ed. Jacob E. Cooke (Middletown, Conn.:
Wesleyan University Press, 1961), p. 3.
 The Papers of George
Washington, Presidential Series, ed. W. W. Abbot
(Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1987), Vol. 2,
p. 175. Emphasis added.
 Abraham Lincoln, "Address
to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27,
1838," in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858,
ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Library of America, 1989), pp.
 The lyrics to this song
are as follows: "Before we leave these portals to meet less
fortunate mortals /There's just one final message I would give to
you. /You all have learned reliance on the sacred teachings of
science, /So I hope through life you will never decline /In spite
of Philistine defiance /To do what all good scientists do.
/Experiment. /Make it your motto day and night. /Experiment. /And
it will lead you to the light. /The apple from the top of the tree
/Is never too high to achieve. /So take an example from Eve…
/Experiment. /Be curious /Though interfering friends may frown.
/Get furious /At each attempt to hold you down. /If this advice
you'll only employ, /The future can offer you infinite joy and
merriment /Experiment, /And you'll see." Robert Kimball, The
Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter (New York: Knopf, 1983), pp.
 See, for example, Todd
Gitlin, The Intellectuals and the Flag (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2007).
 Richard Rorty,
Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century
America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p.
101. Emphasis added.
 Herbert Croly, The
Promise of American Life (New York: Macmillan, 1909).
 Wilfred M. McClay,
"Croly's Progressive America," The Public Interest, Fall
1999, pp. 56-72.
 Transcript, "Barack
Obama's Acceptance Speech."