Get Happy!

It’s been a dark few months. But optimism is still necessary.

By Sophia Crabbe-Field

Tagged DemocratsElectionsgrassroots activismpolitics

My move to Washington, D.C. from Canada this past spring, I soon realized, was being met by befuddlement from some of the American liberals with whom I discussed the matter. Why would I leave what was supposedly now a progressive refuge of sorts—with its forward-looking, inclusive, and handsome new prime minister—to enter the fray south of the border? While in America an ugly battle was still being waged between two widely disliked candidates, Justin Trudeau had trounced Conservative leader Stephen Harper to overcome the latter’s fear-based, xenophobic campaign, returning him to the backbenches after nine years as prime minister. (Put aside, for now, Trudeau’s less-than-progressive policies, such as his approval of oil pipelines and support for the TPP-like Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.) After his win, Trudeau quickly declared that Canadians had “beat fear with hope” and promised “sunny ways,” a nod to the political philosophy of former Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier.

Canada’s recent embarrassments, such as former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, seemed to have been entirely forgotten. In 2013, during the Harper years, for example, The Economist featured an article aptly titled “Uncool Canada.” Yet only three years later, our country had been christened the new shining city on the hill, with the same publication claiming: “Liberty moves north.” Similarly, The New York Times suddenly wondered, “With the Rise of Justin Trudeau, Canada Is Suddenly . . . Hip?

In the United States, this same optimism and hope had seemingly swept Barack Obama, and many presidents before him, into office and had once seemed the defining factor of a winning candidacy (although it may not hold the sway we once thought it did). Observers reaching as far back as Tocqueville—who said that Americans had “all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man,” as they considered “society as a body in a state of improvement”—noted that optimism was an essential tenet of the American credo. Yet with Trump’s rise to power, it seemed that optimism had moved elsewhere; fear, anger, and disillusionment were what now defined the American psyche.

But it’s worth asking: Did these opposing election results really prove that Canada had taken up the mantle of American optimism? Not necessarily. First of all, neuroscientist Tali Sharot and others have identified an “optimism bias,” which, they claim, is inherent to all of us. According to this research, individuals are each guilty of “cognitive time travel,” meaning we can’t help but try to peek into our futures and, when we do so, we are much more likely to foresee positive outcomes for ourselves than negative ones.

It would be impossible to create a successful mass movement to stop or oppose Trump without at least a glimmer of optimism.

And although many Americans are, understandably, distraught at the political state of their nation, research has continued to indicate that individual Americans display an above-average level of such optimism. For example, according to a study from the Pew Research Center, Americans are still considerably more optimistic on a daily basis than are their neighbors in other Western countries. So although it may appear counterintuitive at first glance, it is probably too soon to declare that the long-standing American tendency toward optimism has migrated north.

That said, what’s so great about optimism? An individual’s frequently unsubstantiated optimism may not work in favor of society at large. This could be observed, over the course of last year’s election, in a few different ways. First, many Hillary Clinton supporters (and Donald Trump opponents) simply could not fathom the possibility of his victory. Many presumptuously laughed at his ridiculous Twitter feed, disparaged his awful debating skills, and were gleeful as his personal scandals piled up. One is left to wonder if this perspective may have stopped some on the left from taking the actions they otherwise might have taken, including voting. Indeed, Clinton’s own campaign was similarly overconfident. As detailed in a Politico piece published shortly after the election, the campaign failed to ensure a proper ground operation in Michigan, or even send their candidate to campaign in the state until the last minute. The former secretary of state needlessly and clumsily lost Michigan to Trump.

And although countless think pieces have reflected upon the fear and hopelessness that drove so many of the white working class toward Trump, here’s a thought that liberals may not want to contemplate, but must: Optimism and an unwavering belief in a better future (mixed with a good dose of denial) may have also helped propel some to support a man they believed would “shake things up” in Washington. Likewise, numerous post-election articles chronicled Trump voters who appeared to have taken him “seriously, but not literally.” One widely shared Vox article from December featured interviews from a number of supporters of President Trump in the state of Kentucky who were, nonetheless, enrolled in Obamacare. Despite the Republicans’s framing of the health-care law as malevolent Obama-style “socialism,” which they promised to repeal once back in office, these voters could not imagine that they would actually lose their coverage. Instead, Trump would bring back jobs; their futures, despite all evidence, would be better. 

With Trump now occupying the White House, and easily confirming many of our worst fears about him, optimism is, nevertheless, more essential than ever. It is, perhaps, the only thing that will carry us liberals and progressives through the next four years. Interestingly, many people took to social media at the dawn of the New Year, blaming the year itself for the political chaos that had ensued, both nationally and abroad, while looking hopefully toward 2017. In fact, according to an Associated Press-Times Square Alliance poll conducted after the New Year, 55 percent of Americans believed that 2017 would be a better year for them than the last. Of course, there was no good reason to believe this; so far, not so good. Yet such optimism has an important role to play. It would be impossible to create the kind of mass movement that will be necessary to stop, or at least forcefully oppose, the Trump Administration’s most destructive policies without it.

History may be instructive here. Trump has been compared to several of his predecessors, including Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon. Interestingly, those presidencies both led to important and influential countermovements. For example, the abolitionist movement flourished during Jackson’s time in office. These activists were galvanized as the President took clear actions against abolitionism— leading to heated discussions in Congress; the widespread distribution of abolitionist literature; and the launch of publications like The Liberator, which published the writing of authors including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as abolitionist poets like Frances E.W. Harper.

And it was during the Nixon Administration that the anti-war movement came into full force. An unprecedented number of protestors took to the streets, the most important student strike in American history erupted, and even members of the armed forces eventually rebelled. These individuals shifted the mood across America with regard to foreign policy, pushed candidates to run for office on platforms of peace, and affected the 1972 Democratic Party platform in important ways. As Tom Hayden has said, “American politics would be changed for decades by the anti-Vietnam revolt, much as abolitionists and Radical Republicans…helped turn the tide of the Civil War.” Similarly, one of the most successful movements of the twentieth century emerged after President Reagan refused to recognize the plight of AIDS activists—about 60,000 Americans had died of the disease by the end of his presidency—and they were forcefully denounced by homophobic legislators like Jesse Helms.

In recent years, progressive movements like Black Lives Matter have also shown us the potential for successful organizing in the face of long odds. Optimism has also been stirred by the success of the women’s marches and by rallies that have since followed it. And many leftists are still hoping that moderate Democrats may eventually start lending the same cheery optimism toward economic equality and social cohesion that they have toward economic opportunity and social mobility (despite this hope having been dampened by Keith Ellison’s symbolic loss at the DNC, among other things). So although the obstacles may be more onerous this time around—as strongly evidenced by Trump’s brief time in office thus far—progressives are still right to extract hope from the successes of the past. As we continue to move forward into darker times, let us remember that optimism can still help lead us toward a “better future,” provided we don’t forget the long road ahead.

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Sophia Crabbe-Field is the associate editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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