Why Hope Has Power in This Gut-Wrenching Election Year
Cynicism and despair are among democracy’s worst enemies.
Why Hope Has Power in This Gut-Wrenching Election Year
Photo by AleksandarNakic / iStock.
By Frances Moore Lappé and Adam Eichen / yesmagazine.org

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: 

  • Honest Elections Seattle's big victory put in place public financing that allocates to citizens four $25 vouchers they can allocate to candidates of their choice.
  • 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.
  • With 70 percent of the vote, Ohio reformed its redistricting procedures to fix gerrymandering and make the process less partisan.
  • 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.
  • New York became the 17th state to call for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
  • 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.
  • In Austin, Texas, the City Council passed tough new disclosure provisions.
  • 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.
  • Just last week, after pressure from party activists, the Democrats have begun the process of overhauling its super delegate system.

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.

4.0 ·
2
What's Next
Trending Today
The Myth of Positivity: Why Your Pain Holds a Mighty Purpose
umair haque · 14,284 views today · Of all the great myths of contemporary life, one of the most toxic is positivity. It says: there are negative and positive emotions, and only the positive ones are worth...
Stunning Summary of US Imperialism and Native Resistance... on MSNBC!
4 min · 11,578 views today · On The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC, Lawrence explains why a protest by Native Americans in North Dakota reminds us of the history American always tries to forget.
Standing Rock Wisdom: How Sacred, Nonviolent Activism Has the Power to Succeed
Charles Eisenstein · 7,879 views today · I am told by Native American friends active at Standing Rock that the elders are counseling the Water Protectors to undertake each action prayerfully and to stay off the...
Veterans at Standing Rock Ask Forgiveness for War Crimes Against Tribal Nations
Jen Hayden · 5,577 views today · Jon Eagle Sr., Tribal Historic Preservation Officer at Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has reported something wholly unexpected happened at the Standing Rock Reservation today. The...
Why People Cling to Old Beliefs
1 min · 4,755 views today · Cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist at McGill University, Daniel Levitin, explains why people can be so stubborn when it comes to false beliefs. This behavior is...
Seven Must-Have Skills for the 21st Century
Tommy Lehe · 4,289 views today · We live in a world that moves faster than we do. Trying to keep up can be an overwhelming task that at times feels hopeless, like we are falling further and further behind—but...
Solar is Already Producing More Energy Than Oil, Says Major Scientific Review
Nafeez Ahmed · 3,472 views today · And is twice as powerful than previously thought
The Other Way of Knowing
Lilian Na’ia Alessa · 3,287 views today · Western science and Indigenous worldviews are often seen as incompatible, with the Indigenous view usually being far less valued by society at large. But an inside look at...
DREAM: A Spoken Word Meditation For When Life Is Kicking Your Ass
4 min · 2,903 views today · If life is kicking your ass and the general un-coolness of everybody on planet erf is making you want to off yourself, TALK to someone: 800-273-8255 (national suicide...
13 Crises That We All Must Face
George Monbiot · 2,888 views today · We face (at least) 13 major crises, some of which are immediate. It’s time for some hard thinking about how we confront them.
Forget Air Force One, Pentagon Wastes Billions and Billions Every Month
Nadia Prupis · 2,492 views today · President-elect Donald Trump's focus on single Boeing contract ignores enormous waste of bloated Pentagon budget
Dear Activists, Maybe It's Time to Admit That We've Got It All Wrong
Mickey Z. · 2,167 views today · “The first step in the revolution is eye contact.” - Alicen Grey
Andy Goes In - Working Undercover in a Factory Farm
10 min · 2,019 views today · He's a $10/hr farmhand, and his name isn't Andy. Andy Goes In is a compelling 10-minute documentary short about a Mercy For Animals undercover investigator. The vast majority...
How a White Supremacist Became a Civil Rights Activist
Araz Hachadourian · 1,983 views today · The story of a KKK leader’s transformation shows us that we need not live forever with the kind of violence we saw in Charleston this month.
15 Films Inspiring and Illuminating the 'New Story' Revolution
Tim Hjersted · 1,917 views today · Charles Eisenstein is one of the first people I heard talk about the "new story," synthesizing a diverse movement that has been emerging for the last several decades. When I go...
Sky Roosevelt-Morris: The Secret of Indigenous Resiliency
2 min · 1,461 views today · Activist Sky Roosevelt-Morris is of the Shawnee and White Mountain Apache Nations. She is a member of the Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado. In...
Sean Carroll - The Meaning of Life
7 min · 1,364 views today · The world keeps happening in accordance with its rules; it's up to us to make sense of it and give it value. Sean Carroll Music: Moby - God Moving Over the Face of the Waters
Satish Kumar on "What Is a Sacred Place?"
3 min · 1,285 views today · Satish Kumar brings a Hindu, Buddhist and Jain perspective to the definition of "sacred place." We found his explanation so compelling that we edited a three-minute piece...
Amanda Abbington Introduces iAnimal - 42 Days in the Life of Chickens
4 min · 1,187 views today · Shot undercover in British factory farms and slaughterhouses, this immersive 360° video gives you a birds-eye view of what happens to chicken from farm to plate.
Embracing 'Radical Hope' in Our Fight to Save the Earth
Paul Hoggett · 1,012 views today · Radical hope is not just about determination and courage in the face of darkness, writes Paul Hoggett - it is also about love and a re-finding of all that is benign in the...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Why Hope Has Power in This Gut-Wrenching Election Year