Ask anyone who’s been in the struggle for the long haul. You have to have deep faith.
Faith is our primary source of empowerment. . . . This is not a sprint. This is a marathon.
—Cornel West, Hope on a Tightrope (SmileyBooks, 2008)
On election night, once Ohio faded to blue, I set my DVR to record Barack Obama’s victory celebration in Chicago. I haven’t replayed it yet, but I plan to keep it queued up indefinitely. Not because I anticipate the need to hear the president-elect’s acceptance speech again. That oratory was best appreciated in real time, and I trust Obama will treat us to a fair share of memorable rhetoric over the next four years. I’m holding on to the footage for the crowd shots.
For a few precious hours, citizens across the country flooded the streets and collectively exorcised eight years of cynicism. In Grant Park, that passion was so concentrated that the sounds and images instantly became iconic, like the riots in that same park during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, or the civil rights movement’s march on Washington five years before that.
Once our first black president’s revolutionary surge gives way to pragmatism, once change is inevitably modified by incremental and a momentarily discombobulated opposition retrenches for attack, I’m going to need an audiovisual reminder of that glorious night, those irrepressible tears, that joyful noise. I’m going to push play and take a hit.
This will not be a nostalgic exercise. I’m convinced derision and division will once again threaten our politics, but that is not to say they can’t be conquered. My expectations are simply an acknowledgment that as millions exulted on November 4, millions of others suffered a defeat. What’s more, even some voters who pulled the lever for Obama will become impatient when, as promised, he uses the legislature as a laboratory, builds coalitions, and compromises.
What’s encouraging is that for the first time in a decade there’s evidence that the extreme right’s deafening echo chamber is vulnerable, as are those across the political spectrum who stubbornly refuse to entertain legitimate differences in opinion. Moments of hope, when they sprout from authentic roots, are kryptonite to those who are blinded by hubris, motivated by self-interest, or consumed with the need to demonize.
As philosopher and egalitarian intellectual Cornel West writes in his new book, Hope on a Tightrope, wisdom “comes from wrestling with despair and not allowing despair to have the last word. That’s why hope is always bloodstained and tear-soaked.
“And hope gives us strength to try to . . . keep struggling for more love, more justice, more freedom, and more democracy.”
During the election season, West was the least predictable and most stirring of academia’s pundit class. When he and I talked a few weeks ago, he articulated what progressive thinkers on both sides of the political divide have known since they threw their support behind Obama: The success or failure of this administration lies, perhaps more than any in memory, with its constituency.
“So much depends on how strong we are,” West said. “We just have to raise our voices in terms of letting Barack know, letting Washington know—and if necessary going to the streets—that we are concerned about empowering poor and working people. And that the era of entitlement is over.”
Obama’s victory was a majestic opening stanza, but it was just that—the promise of something deeper, more complicated, and lasting. Readers of this magazine have long clamored for the chance to form a kinder, greener union. Now we have the opportunity to take a grassroots politics to Washington, where a new administration appears ready to hear those voices that represent not only the best and the brightest, but also the least considered. This level of participation will require a great deal of vigor in the wake of an exhausting election.
For West and other deeply religious men and women, that energy will come from meditation, prayer, and prophecy. For others, inspiration will come from community, where camaraderie breeds resilience. Some will listen to beautiful music or read stirring prose. Others will simply thrive on the chance to be part of history.
Me? I’m going to try a combination of all these things. If all else fails in the short term, though, I’ve got a little black box beneath my TV. And it knows just what I need.