Laying a Platform of Hope

A few weeks ago Steve Benen wrote about the different messages Republicans and Democrats took from the 2014 midterms.

For Republicans, the 2014 elections reflected a center-right nation reasserting itself, strenuously objecting to President Obama’s agenda. For the GOP, this couldn’t be more obvious: Republicans nationalized the cycle, President Obama was effectively on the ballot, and Dems lost big. Ergo, the American mainstream wants to see conservative governance going forward.

For Democrats, most notably at the White House, this year’s midterms were about something very different: the public’s disgust with inactivity. Washington spent the last two years spinning its wheels, accomplishing nothing, and by Election Day, voters weren’t rejecting liberalism so much as they were expressing contempt for political paralysis.

Recognizing that contempt, last summer President Obama started ending his speeches by talking about how cynicism is a choice – and that hope is a better choice. He also began ticking off items from his “pen and phone strategy” and continues to do that in a lead-up to the State of the Union speech next week.

It is in that context that Suzy Khimm writes about “a new politics of hope” coming from the Democrats.

Democrats have a new enemy in the fight against inequality and stagnant wages.

It’s not rapacious bankers, greedy corporations, or obstructionist Republicans. It’s resignation, disillusionment, and hopelessness—the sense that ordinary folks are subject to economic forces beyond their control, and little can be done to change that reality.

Progressive leaders and officials are converging around a new message of empowerment to counter the notion that inequality is intractable and inevitable…

It’s a departure from the combative, Elizabeth Warren-style populism that has gained momentum on the left, seeking to empower rather than enrage. But it’s also rooted in the fundamental argument for progressivism: The U.S. government can be a positive force for liberation rather than obstruction, giving citizens the agency and power to reform a country that has been hollowed out by broad economic forces.

This gets us back to the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives: whether or not – as former President Reagan framed it – government is the problem or the solution. Failure to make the argument that the “U.S. government can be a positive force for liberation” means failure of the liberal agenda.

But it also gets at what I believe is another challenge facing progressive reform efforts…the ongoing need to balance outrage and hope. Here is how Marshall Ganz, who teaches community organizing at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, describes the interplay.

The initial challenge for an organizer—or anybody who’s going to provide leadership for change—is to figure out how to break through the inertia of habit to get people to pay attention. Often that breakthrough happens by urgency of need. Sometimes it happens because of anger—and by anger I don’t mean rage, I mean outrage. It’s the contradiction between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. Our experience of that tension can break through the inertia and apathy of things as they always are.

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.

And so, the role of outrage is to break through the inertia. If it meets with despair, it creates cynicism and fear (which we’re seeing a lot of these days). But if it meets with hope – it motivates us towards creative solutions. President Obama and the Democrats accurately assessed the message coming out of the midterm election and are working to lay down a platform of hope to address the outrage.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.