Friday, May 1, 2020

Sustaining hope in the face of defeat

Hope Essay #5 (others: #1; #2; #3; #4; #6; #7)

So, the future is dark and the unexpected is bound to happen. Democracy could be rejuvenated, or it could be destroyed, or just further degraded by polarization, rising inequality, and degradation of the people. The enemies of democracy seem to have endless resources and, as Yeats said, “passionate intensity.” Is it reasonable to hope that defenders of democracy, justice and good policy will get together, fight back and win? Or do they truly “lack all conviction”?

In my first essay in this series I referred to an ongoing conversation I have with my brother, Tommy, who thinks that “hope” is a counter-productive emotion. We then had a sustained back-and-forth in the comments at the end of the previous essay (#4) about whether hope is more likely to promote action or stifle it. He’s got a point. False hope can delude us and lead to despair and surrender and, well, hopelessness.

A hard, rational assessment may in fact lead us to conclude that there really IS no hope, that the political system just doesn’t work and nothing we do will have an impact.

Here’s the pessimistic side of my hard assessment of American democracy in 2020. The education system isn’t preparing students well for democratic citizenship as pressure builds to prepare them for a career in an economy with shrinking opportunity. The culture of schools is authoritarian, not democratic. Civics classes have been cut out of the high school curriculum. Do the people graduating from the nation’s schools even know how the system works? Are they getting the message that they can have an impact? In the workplace, where most of us spend most of our time, workers are increasingly disempowered and pitted against each other. As unions have declined to insignificance, hopes for “workplace democracy” have been killed, and working class voters have been demobilized and the act of crossing picket lines has lost its stigma. If not in school or on the job, where do most people get to learn about and practice democratic engagement? Citizens are increasingly withdrawing from engagement in public life as the demands of private life increase. That includes the burdens of child rearing but also the lure of entertainments and social media, which are engineered to be addictive.  Even good people who are obsessed with “following the news” and are outraged by the sins of Donald Trump are not really engaging in meaningful political activity, but are “political hobbyists” who treat politics as just another, more compelling, entertainment—the mother of all reality TV shows, staring The Donald. Finally, the electorate is increasingly polarized and so evenly divided that it seems impossible to arrive at majority support and enactment of legislation that will solve our most pressing problems. We can’t even have a civil political conversation, much less deliberation, coalition building, or compromise.

If our hard assessment offers no rational basis to hope that collective action and politics can do us any good then what do we do? Reason would suggest three options. First, make the best of things in your personal life and try to ignore politics. Don’t even bother to vote. A great number of Americans currently seem to be taking this option. Second, migrate to a place with a better political system. Just leave. Third, work outside of the system and try to overthrow it. This might include anything from joining an armed revolution to marching down Main Street without a permit from city council.

In her great book on citizenship, Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen points out that African Americans who left the South and migrated North in the “Great Migration” of the 20th Century were taking option number two (all-told, 6 million black folks migrated out of the States of the former confederacy where they were barred from voting, to Northern states, where they became a voting block that could not be ignored). Also, starting in 1954, some of those who stayed behind in the South took option number three, seeking to overthrow the system of Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement in the South through civil disobedience. (See Allen, xvii-xviii). I would add that Booker T. Washington was advising black people to take option number one during the Jim Crow era, and most of them probably did.

I’ve written elsewhere about James C. Scott’s argument that parliamentary democracies never make significant changes that benefit most of us unless they are threatened by the disorder of extra-legal and even violent protests that option number three includes, like the wildcat strikes, sit-ins, and riots of the 1930s and 1960s (Two Cheers for Anarchism, 7-22). My own research on black history in the early decades of the 20th century suggests that some Southern white leaders were motivated to support anti-lynching legislation to prevent black Southerners from taking option number two, because the region’s economy was threatened by the out-migration of the workforce. Thus, even those who give up on politics and democratic governance and take options two and three, may have a positive impact on public policy. Most people, however, (myself included) are not going to join the revolution, risk a prison sentence, or pack up and move to another country. They are faced with two options: political engagement, or political withdrawal. As someone who teeters on the line between those two things, and who has engaged with politics more as entertainment than activity, I would like to see if I can find some rational basis to hope for progress toward a better future, through politics—legal, collective action.

The end of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy presents a good time for me to work this out, since I was more involved in his two campaigns for president than any other. And I’m not alone. Sanders’ presidential campaigns seem to have engaged a lot of people like me. Record numbers of working class people made small cash donations and  his grass roots canvassing operation engaged more volunteers than any of his rivals.  Many say that the Sanders campaign was their first foray into active political engagement. Whether disappointed supporters will react with cynicism and despair, and retreat into political hobbyism or disengagement or find the will to stay involved in politics depends on how we manage our sense of hope and whether our hope for a Sanders presidency can be redirected into hope for something else. It would help if we had approached the campaign in the first place with a hard assessment of Sanders’ chances of winning and realistic hopes about what his candidacy could accomplish.

In a recent Atlantic article, Elaine Godfrey describes the despair of another supporter after Sanders withdrew from the primaries and endorsed Joe Biden:

For loyal fans of political candidates, the feeling associated with the end of a campaign is a specific strain of disappointment: It’s the grief over lost potential, the heartbreak of an unfulfilled vision. But for Sanders supporters like [Andrew] Bauer, that disappointment seems to register as something much more profound. These voters are mourning not only his departure from the race but the loss of something much bigger: hope.

It was a particularly bitter pill, given that just a few weeks early, after Nevada, Sanders seemed destined to win the nomination. When moderate rivals staged a mass exodus from the primary and rushed to endorse Biden it seemed to confirm Sanders’ frequent claims that the system—and the Democratic Party—is rigged against us.

But our hopes were not realistic if we thought that any specific policy advocated by Sanders was likely to be enacted in the short term, even if he became president. Andrew Bauer, the voter profiled in this article supported Sanders because he hoped Medicare for All would be enacted. But as Godfrey rightly points out: “even if Sanders had been elected president, it’s not at all likely that Democrats would have been able or even willing to pass such sweeping changes to America’s health-care system.”

If Bauer now withdraws from politics, as he seems inclined to do (either not voting or voting for a third party candidate who stands no chance of winning), according to Godfrey, then Sanders’ campaigns will indeed have been a failure. Labor organizer Jane McAlevey suggests that presidential campaigns might have a tendency to have this effect because they focus so intensely on the short term goal of electing one specific candidate rather than a long term goal of organizing people for a cause that will persist through ups and downs, victories and defeats. When the election is over and the candidate has lost, there is nothing left to fight for.

Yet McAlevey, also says that the core of organizing is raising expectations and that this was one of Sanders’ great accomplishments (See Ezra Klein podcast @ 54:00).  “If someone doesn’t think they deserve more, they’re not going to fight for more,” she said. This dynamic is particularly evident in labor organizing. Workers need to be persuaded that they deserve a living wage for a full week’s work; they deserve paid sick leave; they deserve health insurance. If they don’t think so, they won’t fight for those things and they won’t join the union. One unexpected and fortuitous outcome of the pandemic quarantine might be to reveal to some of the lowest paid workers in our economy, who have been deemed essential, that they deserve these things and would be justified in organizing collectively to demand them.

There is general agreement that Sanders’ candidacy had a lasting effect on the Democratic Party. Issues like the $15 minimum wage, college for all, and a serious upgrade to Obamacare have been adopted by the mainstream of the party. In accepting Bernie’s endorsement, Joe Biden said he planned to adopt some of Sanders’ policy ideas

But as John Nicols writes, “the greatest accomplishment of the Sanders campaign has less to do with moving good ideas out of the ‘radical’ category and into the mainstream and more to do with inspiring the people who will carry those ideas forward.” This was implied in Sanders’ campaign slogan this year: “Not Me, Us.” Sanders said over and over that he was hoping to inspire a movement, not just win an election.  Indeed, after his 2016 campaign ended, a number of organizations, like Our Revolution, have continued, and Sanders-oriented candidates have been inspired to run for office at the local level.  And the people inspired by the campaigns happen to be younger voters who represent the future of the Democratic Party and the nation. So, while the hope for a Sanders’ presidency has been dashed, other hopes have been realized; still others are on the table. If we approached the campaign with a flexible and realistic sense of hope, we don’t have to be inconsolably disappointed. Maybe we need to let go of specific hopes, and embrace vague ones: I’m working for a better future, though I can’t be certain about how that will come about or just what my efforts will do to bring it about.

On the other hand, McAlevey calls on political organizers to pair their “hard assessment” with a “credible plan to win,” which, she argues, the Sanders campaign never did.  His expectations of winning by increasing the turnout of young voters, she says, was not a credible plan. Nor, in my opinion, does Mr. Bauer now have a credible plan for getting Medicare For All enacted. He says that in November he is either going to write in Bernie Sanders or vote for the Green Party. That strikes me as an act of hopelessness and despair rather than a well-thought-out step toward a preferred outcome. Even Noam Chomsky agrees with me on this.  He thinks a Biden presidency would be less destructive than another four years of Trump and would be more susceptible to pressure from the left. On the day he accepted Sanders’ endorsement, Biden announced his support for two Sanders-esque policies: one would reduce the age to qualify for Medicare from 65 to 60; the other would forgive student debt for some lower-income families.

Sanders himself has not given up on the system’s susceptibility to collective action by working class Americans. He continues to be in contact with supporters and is hatching plans to continue fighting for progressive causes. A former student of mine just told me that the Sanders campaign has engaged him to work on their ongoing effort to unionize Amazon warehouse workers. It sounded like a credible plan and gives me more hope than anything else I’ve heard recently. It seems fitting to give Bernie the last word on hope on this page. In his Atlantic article , Nichols notes that Sanders, who “ran plenty of losing campaigns” before and after he was elected Mayor of Burlington Vermont in 1981, told him:

We have to break down this psychological barrier where people think, I don’t have a PhD in economics or in health care. I just don’t know everything. We have got to break that down and make people understand that if you have a heart full of compassion, if you understand what’s going on in the world, if you believe in justice, you can run, you should run, and you can win. And if you don’t know everything about everything, well, join the club. Nobody does. But it is terribly important to break down that barrier where people think, Oh, the only people who could run for office are people who are politically connected, people whose daddy or mommy was a big political fundraiser or politician. We got to break that down and I think, as you’ve indicated, we are making real progress. I get all over the country and I get tremendous satisfaction out of going to some rally and somebody comes up and says, “Bernie, I ran for school board and I won.” “I’m on the city council and I won.” That is fantastic. That is part of the political revolution, absolutely.’
 Other Hope Essays: #1; #2; #3; #4; #6

A note on hope essays: Writing this series of essays keeps complicating my thoughts about hope and it's relation to politics, collective action, citizenship, and history.  I originally thought I would write one blog entry about hope and the presidential primaries on New Year's Day, and it just keeps expanding.  What I thought was going to be a sixth and potentially final essay keeps getting longer and longer.  It may be a while before I figure out how to trim that down or break it into smaller entries and start posting again.  Initially, I was planning to write about glimmers of hope peeking out under four mountains of despair, those being:.  

Undemocratic education.

The decline of unions and workplace democracy

Privatization and atomization.


A lot of the sense of hope I am able to salvage from among the ruins of American democracy include classics scholar Danielle Allen, labor organizer Jane McAlevey, and political educators Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy.  And there are many others also.  

I hope to be done with something soon!

Postscript, June 25, 2020: Instead of the above, I ended up writing about whether the protests sparked by George Floyd's death will bring positive progress or not instead of most of the items listed above. In one entry I suggested that it might give hope to Sanders supporters like Andrew Bauer. Then I read this NYT column by Ross Douthat, that framed the protests as the "second defeat" of Sanders.  I think this link also takes you to a reader comment that pushes back against Douthat. 


  1. An infinity symbol! I always said that we need more math in politics.

  2. I very hesitantly send you this link. I will warn you of its content by quoting the first sentence:
    “Progressivism, in its original 19th-century form, was the offspring of pessimism.”
    Although, to be fair, towards the end there is this sentence:
    “After 1865, it was economic power which emerged as the greatest challenge to liberty, and if one can say anything in defense of the Progressives, it should be that they saw this shift all too clearly, even if they mistook the best means for dealing with it.”

    1. The reason that that sentence about pessimism caught my eye is because it goes to the question of what the hope or optimism or pessimism is about. Human nature? The impact of technology?