On Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal

Olasky Books June 2023 Subscribe to Olasky Books

So much from the left (and also the right) is predictably roaring and boring. George Packer for two decades, though, has provided unexpected insights through his biting writing in The New Yorker and now The Atlantic. His Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) displays egalitarianism but does not accept the traditional left/right spectrum. Instead, Packer looks at four competing narratives: Free America (economically individualistic) Smart America (socially liberal affluents), Real America (worried non-urban whites), and Just America (urban left, often darker-skinned).

Conservatives won’t like some of Packer’s recommendations, but he also points out the unwillingness of many on the left to talk about poverty’s complex causes: Structural racism remains, but individual responsibility or lack thereof is also crucial. Packer points out that local black citizens stopped “defund the police” campaigns: They wanted better policing, not less of it. In education, we need to recognize the “achievement gap” and not hide it by abolishing testing. We’ve had enough pandering bestsellers, anti-bias training sessions, and other “performance spaces. It would be better to have real conversations, two people of different races alone in a room together, speaking, listening, responding… telling the truth.”

It’s 30 years since John McKnight and John Kretzmann published Building Communities From the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community‘s Assets (ACTA, 1993). I missed it at the time, but I’m now convinced that Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is important, and a way for the left and right to work together. McKnight’s 128-page book, Associational Life: Democracy’s Power Source (Kettering Foundation Press, 2022), is a quick introduction to McKnight’s thinking: It features short essays on “the role of citizens when they come together in associations that nurture and amplify their power to be productive creators.”

Particularly in helping poor communities, it’s important to start with what assets they have instead of fixating on what they don’t have, as Matthew Desmond does in Poverty by America (Crown, 2023). Desmond offers a thoughtful view from the left but does not get at the crucial question of building community. McKnight is wiser: “The anger we observe nationally grows significantly from the dissatisfaction millions of people feel because they are locally disconnected from each other.”

Will character count in the 2024 presidential contest? James Barber’s The Presidential Character (Routledge, 2020), now in its fifth edition, melds political science and psychology by dividing presidents into four groups: 1) passive-negatives who emphasize their civic virtue (example: George Washington), 2) active-negatives who aim to get and keep power (John Adams), 3) active-positives who want to achieve results (Thomas Jefferson), and 4) passive-positives who are after love (James Madison). Barber classes Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and George W. Bush as active-positive presidents, despite their significant differences, so I doubt this book is all that useful, but if you’re looking for a good party game…

Chris Whipple’s The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House (Scribner, 2023) and Gabriel Debenedetti’s The Long Alliance: The Imperfect Union of Joe Biden and Barack Obama (Holt, 2022) are fair revealers and explainers of what went right and wrong during the eight Obama years and the first two years of the Biden administration. The Presidency of Donald J. Trump, edited by Julian Zelizer (Princeton, 2022), convincingly lays out the case against him and opposes polarization. It suffers, though, from the myopia of contending that “polarization has not been equal. Republicans have moved further to the extreme than Democrats.” That’s a hard case to make in regard to issues like abortion.

In two days I turn 73, so thoughts of death sometimes enter my mind. That’s one reason I read all the way to the end of David Baddiel’s The God Desire: On Being a Reluctant Atheist (TLS Books, 2023). It’s very different from the work of Christopher Hitchens and many contemporary atheists. Baddiel doesn’t think belief in God is stupid: He says he wants to believe, but his great desire not to die, and consequent desire that God exists, is purportedly proof that God only exists as a yearning.

Many reasonable responses to this intellectual gambit exist. What we desire can be true: The Boston Red Sox after always falling short for 86 years have won four World Series in the 21st century. But moving to a higher plane, that’s why work on Intelligent Design is so important. After all, we have only two good explanations for the fine-tuning of the universe, this solar system, this world, and life itself: Either we’re part of a multiverse, or we’re the work of our Creator. Baddiel, who claims to be evidence-based rather than faith-based, does not deal with the scientific evidence.

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.