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The political hope amidst the pervasive political despair of 2016


The year 2016 seems to grow more awful by the day, but in the Boston Review, Ronald Aronson reminds us that it has also been the year of the revival of social hope, primarily in the form of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in the US. Aronson explains what he means by “social hope” and distinguishes the kind of progressive hope that fueled the Sanders campaign from the narrow-minded hope that fueled the Trump campaign. Although Sanders lost the primary to Hillary Clinton, Aronson suggests that the hope he revived will not soon dissipate.

Though it has now been overshadowed by the stunning victory of bigoted nativism—whether loudly supported or quietly overlooked by most Republicans as well as particular members of the working class—we must not forget that this year we have witnessed the groundwork being laid for a genuine revival of social hope in the United States. I do not mean a renewed faith in grand narratives or a vague and misty-eyed optimism but the tough-minded and inspired disposition to act collectively to make the world more equal, more democratic, more peaceful, more secure, and more just. Despite the defeat of the Sanders campaign, and despite Trump’s victory, we must understand this hope and work to keep it alive.

Social hope is not merely a personal attitude, a mood, a feeling: that dismissive way of characterizing it makes it difficult to pin down, even embarrassing. (This, along with the disappointing accommodations made by Obama’s administration after campaigning on hope and the affirmation that “Yes We Can,” may explain in part why the idea is so widely ignored and often belittled on the left.) Social hope is, instead, a substantive yoking together of the personal and the public, the emotional and the material: it stands for feelings, yes, but also values, actions, analyses, and expectations. It is potency and possibility and vision, yet always linked to what we do. Underpinning the hard labor of social organizing is an animating force that brings and keeps people together, inspires them to keep going, and creates a sense of fellowship. It is the experience of belonging both to specific movements and to the larger arc of history which, in small ways and large, have made the world freer, more equal, and more just. Social hope is that shared understanding that emerges in organized action and makes it possible, that links itself to other movements and their demands, both past and present. Those of us who have had the experience of social organizing know all the labor that goes into it, but underneath the activity is a wider and deeper spirit that sustains it all.

Image of Bernie Sanders via the New Yorker.