Why Hope Has Power In This Gut-Wrenching Election Year

Cynicism and despair are among democracy’s worst enemies.


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© Aaron Burden, Unsplash

Hope about American politics is hard to come by.

Disapproval ratings of both major-party candidates are higher than we’ve seen in decades. Millions are livid about Trump’s lies and let down by Hillary Clinton and her party’s now-exposed bashing of Bernie Sanders. All these responses seem to reflect the utter disillusionment of people across the political spectrum who feel shut out of a political system dominated by wealthy, special interests.

No wonder thousands of Americans are supporting third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein and protesting both conventions.

In such a challenging time, how do we keep our eyes and energies fixed on our goal of real democracy?

Hope is key. It is an essential ingredient for change.

Let’s be clear about what hope is not. Hope isn’t a “slightly sappy whistler in the dark,” as the late historian Howard Zinn reminded us. It’s not blind confidence that things will, somehow, work out.

No, hope has power.

In his book, Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear, Harvard Medical School’s Srinivasan S. Pillay captures it this way: “Hope is not an answer,” but because it stimulates the imagination, it helps us to pose the right questions. By contrast, fear often triggers the wrong questions. Pillay likens hope to a scientist’s hypothesis, organizing us toward solutions.

Pillay emphasizes, too, hope’s power vis-a-vis fear: Because “hope seems to travel in the same [parts of the brain] as fear, it might be a good soldier to employ if we want to meet fear.”

In this painful moment, what does such hope feel like?

Like the journey that it is, “democracy is … becoming rather than being. It can be easily lost, but never is fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle,” said the first African-American federal judge William H. Hastie.

On that journey, tapping the true power of hope requires grasping how we got here—identifying the causal flow; only then can we feel confident we’re actually reversing it.

Our shorthand version of America’s downward spiral starts with a couple of false and dangerous ideas.

First, that a market economy works on its own. After all, Ronald Reagan assured us the market is “magic,” and with magic you surely don’t want to spoil the fun by asking how it works. In real life, however, our fun has been spoiled by not asking. We’ve failed to grasp that, of course, all economies have rules; and in ours, unfortunately, one dominates: The built-in driver of economic decisions is what will bring the highest return to existing wealth.

So, no surprise. Wealth begets wealth until we reach the appalling reality of America today, in which 20 people control as much wealth as the bottom half of us. As social epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett document in their 2009 book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, extreme economic inequality, disrupting the social fabric, is associated with elevated violence, poorer health, and many other negative outcomes.

The second dangerous idea is that democracy accountable to citizens can survive such concentrated wealth. Throughout American history, big-money interests have converted their economic advantage into political power. But in recent decades, as weakened campaign finance rules swelled the flow of wealth into our politics, some, including the BBC, have referred to America as an oligarchy. As money buys more political power, our economy and democracy become even more a tool for the few over the many.

If these big assertions begin to describe our root predicament, where’s the hope?

We again turn to Zinn’s wisdom: “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises…”

In that spirit, let’s count every single win, big and small, that our focus and hard work have achieved in addressing this root crisis—the grip of money in politics. As we work to remove that democracy-destroying power, we build confidence and avenues for shaping new rules governing our economy and other dimensions of society so that America works for all of us.

There are plenty of such wins to celebrate—even in the past year: 

  • Maine voted to strengthen their Clean Election Act, increasing funds for candidates who don’t take private money and adding disclosure requirements and tougher penalties.
  • Democratic Party leadership agreed on a platform with strong positions on money in politics, endorsing public financing of elections as well as other critical reforms. The platform reflects core demands that Democracy Spring marchers called for in April while marching from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.
  • After adopting automatic voter registration, Oregon added 15,000 registered voters in its “motor voter” system in the first 24 business days, compared to an average of only 2,000 per month before passage.
  • The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Evenwel v. Abbott that states can include all residents (not just registered voters) when designing state legislative districts—a big deterrent to disenfranchisement.

Our list could go on and will likely grow even longer this fall, as some states will have democracy reform initiatives on the November ballot.

Since cynicism and despair are among democracy’s worst enemies, let these and other victories stir us to work harder than ever to make our democracy real for all Americans.

Of course, hope is not for wimps. It takes courage to move past our comfort zones to speak up, demand reform, and, if ignored, to take peacefully to the streets. It requires that we not allow ourselves to be confused or sidetracked. Courage also demands that we avoid easy, categorical thinking. It means refusing to paint all politicians as uncaring or evil, understanding that although the system is rigged many on the inside would fix our democracy if given the chance. As citizens, our job is to push so hard they have that chance.

We can’t let bad news blind us from seeing that Democrats and Republicans are not “equally as bad” on money in politics. Their respective party platforms could not be more different. Whether a Democrat or a Republican gains the White House, our job remains the same: mobilize as never before for democratic reforms and across party lines.

In all, hope means refusing to allow any setback or anyone’s cynicism to dilute our own creativity, positivity, and energy. Zinn asks us never to forget: “The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Frances Moore Lappé wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Lappé is the author or co-author of 18 books, including the groundbreaking bestseller, Diet for a Small Planet. She and her daughter, Anna Lappé, lead the Small Planet Institute. Lappé is a YES! contributing editor.

Adam Eichen is a member of the Democracy Matters Board of Directors and a Maguire Fellow at the French research institute Sciences Po. He is also a Democracy Fellow at the Small Planet Institute, where he is working on a book on democracy with founder Frances Moore Lappé. Follow him on Twitter: @eichendoit.

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