There's little doubt that Barack Obama's redemptive message of change grabbed Americans by the throat. After all, it's in times full of fear and despair that people are hungry for hope. Obama's triumph and victory speech were moving not only because they reminded us that this country is based on the idea of possibilities but because, for at least a moment, much of the nation believed that hope was reborn. And that raises a question: Why are Americans so obsessed with hope?
The American dream -- anyone can succeed, second chances abound, we are what we make ourselves -- is one way to define "hope." An October survey by J. Walter Thompson revealed that 77% of Americans think the American dream is part of what makes this country so dynamic. That helps explain why 78% also agreed that the next president "needs to breathe new life" into that dream. So hope is an inextricable part of our national identity. Without it, most agree, America wouldn't be America.
Historically, writers have ascribed this essential idealism or optimism to the nation's awesome natural abundance and its wide-open spaces, which have allowed for geographic -- and social -- mobility. In the 1780s, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur made the connection between abundance and the incipient American culture of aspiration: "There is room for every body in America; has he any particular talent, or industry ... he exerts it in order to procure a livelihood, and it succeeds." But as inspiring as that observation may be, it doesn't cut to the heart of the matter. That's because the greatest inspiration for hope is, well, fear. The fear of failure.
Think about it. Puritan dogma, from which much of American ideology stems, held that those early migrants had been selected by God for "an errand into the wilderness." When John Winthrop, aboard the Arabella as it approached the New World, urged his flock to create "a city upon a hill," his words were as much a warning as an exhortation. He believed that the Puritans had entered into a covenant with God and that they were ordained to establish God's kingdom and be an example to the world. If they failed, he said in his famous 1630 sermon, "we shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of this good land whither we are going."
Fail, and you're damned. Add that to one other bit of bedrock Americanness -- that we're a "nation of immigrants" -- and
, you get a people terrified of screwing up.
Why? Because even though throughout our history immigrants have been some of the scrappiest and most resourceful of Americans, it's also true that they tended to be people who had failed, for whatever reason, to achieve in their home countries. We talk about immigrants striving for the future. We forget that they're almost always running from their failed pasts.
In the early 19th century, when Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that "ambition is the universal feeling" in America, he also claimed that, in the U.S., the rich as well as the poor were spurred to success by "the most imperious of all necessities, that of not sinking in the world."
It's not easy living in a future-oriented country whose culture is based on the idea of mobility, rebirth and hope. Mobility and the constant process of "becoming" breed insecurity. As historian David M. Potter wrote in 1954, the more we believe in mobility, the more we reject the idea that, high and low, each person has his or her rightful place in society. "Whereas the principle of status affirms that a minor position may be worthy, the principle of mobility, as Americans have construed it, regards such a station as ... the proof of personal failure." He goes on to say that "the denial of [set] status deprives the individual of one of his deepest psychological needs" and describes the "hazards and insecurities" of the fluidity of American life.
Our national cult of hope, therefore, is a balm to soothe our social and culture instability. We fetishize hope because it helps us as we grasp at a favorable future. We wrap ourselves in it like no other people in the world because we tell ourselves failure isn't an option. We have no choice but to cheer when a president-elect tells us we can put our hands "on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day."
And we're right to cheer. If America ever did fail to come up with future prospects, plans, dreams and hopes, it would, in all the most important ways, surely cease to exist.