Politics and the Art of Hope

Kathryn Lopez
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Posted: May 29, 2015 3:04 PM
Politics and the Art of Hope

A recent New Yorker magazine cover portrays Hillary Clinton looking in on a locker room full of Republican presidential candidates looking very white and very male. It obviously omits some of the contenders and some of their differences. In a sense, it's the perfect cover for a campaign season, however: Blinkered by partisan ideology, it misses the point completely. It is also a stark contrast with a contemporaneous cover of The Economist. With the tag line "The Weaker Sex," the cover showed an image of a man in blue jeans and boots -- as if ready to work -- sitting and looking despondent.

I first saw it on the Twitter feed of Bradford Wilcox, director of National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. I asked him for his reaction to the cover and he said: "Around much of the world, we're seeing working-class men disconnected from the key institutions that give their lives meaning, purpose, and money -- work, civil society and marriage. This is an ominous development, both because it puts them and their communities at risk, but also because it can pave the way for real political instability. Large numbers of unmoored men are not a good thing for any nation."

Carly Fiorina, missing from The New Yorker cover, is, as you may have heard, running for president. She's made it her strategy to shadow Hillary Clinton, presenting herself as a contrast, and more than that, a different vision. In her recent book, "Rising to the Challenge," she writes about the death of her stepdaughter, Lori, and the addiction and despair that led to it.

"Lori's potential was never fulfilled, but death is not the only thing that crushes potential," Fiorina writes. "Too many people lose hope for themselves. Too many lack the opportunity to use their God-given gifts. Like Lori, every person has far more potential than they realize. Every person has the capacity to live a life of meaning, dignity, and purpose."

She continues: "What I also know is that Americans are failing to achieve that potential today. One in six Americans lives in poverty. More Americans are on food stamps than at any time in our history. Record numbers of Americans remain unemployed. Underemployment is a growing problem. Labor force participation rates are at historic lows."

She goes on to assert, "Some survey this bleak landscape and see the signposts on the road of the inevitable decline of America.

"Me? I think of Lori, and I see an ocean of untapped potential." I rather like that reframe.

It's a vision that conjures up images of the immigrant past of my hometown of New York City, the storied history of hopes and hardship, struggles and faith. Occasionally before or after a morning Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, I think of what wisdom those strivers might impart to us now.

That dreaming and striving has stopped for many in America, and another presidential season of false narratives and misleading rhetorical attacks isn't going to help people hear the music of "life, liberty and happiness" that has been our -- albeit imperfect -- drumbeat.

As Wilcox has written: "The fragility of contemporary religious life in working-class and poor communities in America is rooted not only in the 'economic hammer blows' dealt to communities by the new economy, but also in the technological and cultural changes that have undercut the virtues, values and institutions that sustain churches, synagogues and mosques -- including strong and stable marriages and families."

Articulating policies that encourage, not hinder, these buttresses at the heart of American democracy must be the task of a presidential election season. Everything else is a harmful distraction. Politics isn't a savior; it isn't the dispenser of hope. But a campaign season can revive dreams, it can help hope float to the surface of our public discourse by highlighting what works and showing how political leadership can help the process. It might even make for an uplifting magazine cover, for a change.