Among the firsts in Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” is the concept of democracy that it assumed. Democracy, according to the twenty-two-year-old poet, is an aspiration—a thing of the future.
The word “democracy” first appears in the same verse in which Gorman refers to “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it.” The insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th took place while Gorman was working on the poem, although the “force,” one may assume, is bigger than the insurrection—it is the Trump Presidency that made the insurrection possible, and the forces of white supremacy and inequality that enabled that Presidency itself—“it / Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy / And this effort very nearly succeeded” the poem continues. “But while democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated.”
Both times the poem raises “democracy,” Gorman pairs the word with “delay,” which tells us that democracy is a thing expected, anticipated—not a thing that we have built, or possessed, but a dream. This is not the way that politicians or even political theorists usually use the word “democracy,” but it is one way that philosophers have used it. Jacques Derrida, the French deconstructionist, used the term “democracy to come.” Democracy, he wrote, was always forged and threatened by contradictory forces and thus is always “deferred,” always out of reach even in societies that adopt democracy as their governing principle.
Gorman’s poem is, explicitly, a text about the future. She exhorts Americans to look not at “what stands between us / But what stands before us.” She says, at the beginning, that “we know, to put our future first,” and she ends with a verse of promises and challenges as rousing as any ever written:
The focus on the future is a direct response to the rhetoric of the outgoing President, who called on his mob to transport the country back to an imaginary past and forced Americans to live in a present without end. To write about the future, Gorman also has to write about the past. “Being American is more than a pride we inherit, / it’s the past we step into / And how we repair it,” she says, in an elegant rebuke to the rhetoric of return-to-normalcy: “We will not march back to what was / But move to what shall be.” Again, she stresses that the promise of American democracy is still there, still yet to arrive.
In everyday speech, Americans usually refer to democracy as a thing that we have, or used to have before Trump came along. In the tradition of American political speeches, democracy often figures as a work in progress. This, too, suggests that democracy is something we inhabit but continue to work on, an endless fixer-upper with good bones. Gorman’s explicit assumption is more radical and challenging.
It’s not only philosophy where the idea of a democracy-to-come can be found. “The Hill We Climb” evokes another great American poem, Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again.” Hughes wrote, “America never was America to me, / And yet I swear this oath— / America will be!”—an immortal distillation of the tension between American aspirations and American reality, and a stubborn insistence that the country continue to reach for its dream. There is no better place to start for an inaugural poem, or for a Presidency.
Read More About the Presidential Transition
- Donald Trump has survived impeachment, twenty-six sexual-misconduct accusations, and thousands of lawsuits. His luck may well end now that Joe Biden is the next President.
- With litigation unlikely to change the outcome of the election, Republicans are looking to strategies that might remain even after rebuffs both at the polls and in court.
- With the Trump Presidency ending, we need to talk about how to prevent the moral injuries of the past four years from happening again.
- If 2020 has demonstrated anything, it is the need to rebalance the economy to benefit the working class. There are many ways a Biden Administration can start.
- Trump is being forced to give up his attempt to overturn the election. But his efforts to build an alternative reality around himself will continue.
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