We have a chronic problem in America with abstract words. We cannot do without them, since they are carriers of our highest ideals and aspirations: “justice,” “democracy,” “dignity,” “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. The use of such words—or of words such as “change” or “hope” or “promise”—play an essential role in most acts of cultural sleight of hand.
That caution is especially appropriate in a modern democratic culture, and so it is not surprising that Tocqueville had a keen awareness of it. “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.” The chief virtue of an abstraction, he observed, is that it is “like a box with a false bottom; you may put in it what ideas you please, and take them out again without being observed.”
Such words can thrill and intoxicate, even as their meaning is made to expand beyond all bounds, and inflate into something genuinely dangerous, or at any rate something different from, and perhaps even deeply antithetical to, their original meaning.
Which of course puts one in mind of the 2008 presidential election, and particularly the Democratic nominee, whose rhetoric is invariably referred to as “soaring”—a word used admiringly by people who have evidently never thought much about the word’s dictionary meaning: “a mode of flight in which height is gained by using warm air that is moving upwards.” This is likely to be true of the rhetoric of any effective democratic politician. But Barack Obama’s campaign is so high and lifted up by abstractions that older means of propulsion, a wing and a prayer, seem crawlingly terrestrial by comparison.
Closer examination discloses that there is nothing very new going on here, only a fresh exemplification of the principle Tocqueville put forward so lucidly. A case in point is Obama’s use of the word promise, a frequent visitor to his rhetoric over the years, and 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 title to refer to “the steady advance of democratic values and steady amelioration of social and economic problems.” In short, to progress meant to get beyond American ideals of individualism and limited government, ideals that Croly 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 of American identity, and thought 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 governance.
It was a flawed vision, which glossed over the difficulty of reconciling those means with those ends, and was based ultimately on a misunderstanding of human nature as infinitely malleable. But 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 business enterprise.
But this 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, all 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 figure 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, exactly forty-five years to the day before Obama’s nomination acceptance speech, he too used the language of promise. But he did so in its older, pre-Crolyan sense. He did so with the marvelously homely, everyday image of a bank check as a promissory note:
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.”
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 use of promise in his nominating speech is quite different. The word “promise” is used many more times: thirty-two by my count. And it is used in many different and shifting senses, equivocally, 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. Let me illustrate with a few passages.
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. . . .
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. . . .
Ours is a promise that says government. . . 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 new science and technology. . . .
[Our government] should ensure opportunity. . . 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.
And we will keep our promise to every young American—if you commit to serving your community or your country, we will make sure you can afford a college education. . . .
Now is the time to finally keep the promise of affordable, accessible health care for every single American . . . [and] the promise of equal pay for an equal day’s work. . . . Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility—that’s the essence of America’s promise.
[No one] benefits when a[n immigrant] mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. 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. . . .
[It] 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. Or at least he hopes it will for us. But what, based on these passages, can one say about its meaning for him?
First, one can conclude that it has no fixed meaning, and 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, that 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 difference. 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 they were made, 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. And it is also worth noting that Obama consciously excises at least two possible meanings of the promise. There is no mention of the unborn and the disabled as brothers and sisters for whom we are called to serve as keepers. And there is the way the speech concludes:
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 these words’ source in the Bible, and even chooses to use the more believer-friendly word Scripture, he also truncated this quotation in a highly significant way. For 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 left doing the promising? The word promise has, by his speech’s end, become little more than a floating signifier, which is not attached to any determinate source or destination, but retains only a faint moral glow of its lofty origins.
This is the kind of damage to clear thinking that can be wrought by the excessive and unchallenged use of abstract words. And it suggests reasons why those who have been so impressed by Obama’s well-advertised sensitivity to religion ought to think again.
Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.