‘The System Is Rigged’ vs. ‘Yes We Can’

One of the words that is being thrown around a lot these days when it comes to our political system is “rigged.” I was reminded of that when Trump tweeted this today:

He loves throwing that word around. But he’s not the only one. We hear it a lot these days from liberals and Democrats. Bernie Sanders and his supporters talk about a rigged system and the word has been a favorite of Elizabeth Warren for a while now.

I have to admit that I cringe every time I hear candidates use that word. That’s because, when a lot of people hear it, they assume there’s no point in trying. If the political system is rigged, why bother? That’s precisely why Republicans like Donald Trump embrace it. They want to spread cynicism and hopelessness when it comes to politics—as Mike Lofgren explained.

There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters’ confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that “they are all crooks,” and that “government is no good,” further leading them to think, “a plague on both your houses” and “the parties are like two kids in a school yard.” This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s – a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn (“Government is the problem,” declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).

In other words, the party that wants to “drown the government in the bathtub” has a vested interest in cynicism and complacency.

Bernie Sanders doesn’t really believe that the system is rigged, otherwise he wouldn’t have said things like, “When millions of people stand up and fight…they win.” He also said this:

All over this country we have a lot of bright, decent, good people. They’re saying, ‘You know what, this situation is hopeless. You can’t beat the Koch Brothers, you can’t beat the billionaires… you can’t win. I’m giving up.’ That is exactly what they want us to believe. And I beg of you, do not enter that world of despair. We can win this fight if we stand together.

When I heard him say things like that, it reminded me of Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 2008 and 2012. He said things like that all the time. He also demonstrated that, when the message is “Yes We Can,” we win.

That isn’t to suggest that there aren’t hurdles to overcome. I am reminded that it was Delores Huerta, leader of the United Farm Workers, who came up with the motto, “Si Se Puede,” which translates into “Yes We Can.”

Take a moment to ponder what would have happened if, instead of Si Se Puede, she had gone around telling Latino farmworkers that the system was rigged against them (as if they didn’t already know that). The hurdles they faced make ours look pretty small in comparison. But Huerta’s message to them was “Yes We Can” when people told her that it couldn’t be done.

The man who knows more about community organizing than anyone in this country, Marshall Ganz, gives us the scoop on why that kind of message is important.

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.

Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.

We’re hearing a lot of talk these days about what Democrats need to do to move forward. Part of that rests on articulating policies that actually make a difference in people’s lives. But in addition to policies, the uphill battle we face in this country right now is to motivate people to vote and get engaged in the political process. Part of the reason that Barack Obama was successful in becoming the first African American president (proving that the system isn’t rigged) is that he tapped into hope and enthusiasm rather than despair and fear. “Yes We Can” will beat “the system is rigged” every time.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.