The Politics of Optimism

By Kate Jenkins

On the night of the election, I’m embarrassed now to admit, I wore the white uniform so many women donned in honor of the suffragettes: white t-shirt, white jeans, white sneakers, topped off with a vintage fur and red lipstick, because I was expecting a party, after all. I arrived at a women’s event space at around 9:45, just a commercial break or two before the future came into focus, and left at about 10. I wanted to be alone. I biked home fast, standing up out of the seat the whole way, tears streaming behind me in the wind.

For days afterward I woke up and stared at the pile of white clothes on the floor, wondering how I had found myself in such a state of blind optimism. Sure, I’d been burnt out on the campaign, disenchanted and demoralized, but it seemed that the months of agony would all be in service of some gain — perhaps not the gain progressives had always hoped for, but in this hellish year, the election of the first female president and the vanquishing of a thinly veiled white supremacist would have to do. On Wednesday, Election Hangover Day, I nursed my migraine, as well as my shock, anger, and grief, in an hours-long magnesium bath à la Margot Tannenbaum. It was sometime that evening that I recognized I’d purchased my optimism with a degree of a certain kind of white privilege — the privilege to remain oblivious to the darker truths of my country — I would not have previously ascribed to myself. A dear black friend, David[1], remained stoic, noting wryly that white liberal shock was as informative about the state of the country as the results themselves.

I should’ve known better. Looking back, it seems one of Clinton’s gravest tactical errors was to respond to Trump’s prosecutorial slogan with the assertion, spoken aloud but also infused into every element of her campaign, that, “America is already great.” (You might argue that, say, declining to campaign in “safe” Democratic states like Wisconsin and Michigan in favor of ambitious choices like Florida and North Carolina was the real tactical error, to which I would respond that her negligence there smacked of the spirit of just such a remark.) One can certainly attempt to manufacture optimism as a strategy for ensuring conformity, but this time around the weight of the evidence simply wasn’t on optimism’s side. In a fearful post-recession moment, better to manufacture desire, as Trump did, to convince people of the many ways in which they were wanting, and then to offer to sate them with brand-spanking-new products.

Patriotism[2] was a fine strategy for USA!-chanting white conservatives when they were aiming, during rosier economic times and in the middle of a war, to re-elect Bush; but the people upon whose ancestors’ bodies the country was built don’t take so easily to patriotism, ever, even after eight years of Obama. Many of them, as well as a majority of the middle- and working-class whites in the so-called “fly-over states,” turned away from Clinton because, for various reasons, they were offended by her defensive positioning with regards to the state of the nation and her working assumption that the status quo, i.e. neoliberalism, would sort things out in time. And while Clinton did occasionally speak cautiously in support of police reform and cursorily in support of Appalachian job development, it seemed her primary project was to warn us of the bad changes the other guys wanted to make, rather than render her own vision for upheaval. That’s the thing about moderates: they project a common belief that everything is pretty much just fine. Clinton would surely have blessed us with plenty of mostly positive incremental change[3] — and of course she would not have been my candidate had I not so fervently believed in her impressively in-the-weeds, surprisingly socially progressive platform, whose intelligence sadly could not hold up to facile, spastically shouted (and tweeted) slogans like “Build the Wall!” and “Drain the Swamp!” It’s a sad fact that platforms are no match for PR. And for too many, alas, that measured, executable platform of incremental change suspiciously resembled a self-satisfied endeavor to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic.

Status quo skepticism has long been the province of the left. I imagine that Clinton’s patriotic declaration felt to many like a betrayal of the progressive project, which has labored for many years at vilifying our American reality by comparing it with the Scandinavian fantasy. This phenomenon is perhaps best illustrated by ATTN:’s Facebook videos. In a rather tired routine, ATTN: harshly contrasts American family leave, drug laws, incarceration rates, cultural tendencies, obesity rates, you-name-it to those of European countries, such that America is painted with a broad, cynical brush as some irredeemable inner circle of hell. One would not think this would be politically expedient for the party whose own president has been in office for the last eight years and who is therefore presumably responsible for our alleged disaster of a country, but in fact, the Democratic Party has always organized around the promise of change; in contrast, Republicans have until very recently organized around the promise of maintaining traditions, no matter how nefarious. To deny the need for change is to deny the need for the left.

Neither was “America is already great” easily swallowed by the right, of course, which is — quite apart from its desire to see Obama not only dethroned but also beheaded — experiencing a new hunger for change of its own special variety. The right is apparently fed up with its own droll murmurings about small government, delivered by dynastic old dudes who all share precisely the same haircut, and the right no longer reveres civil servants in the way it claims to revere the troops. As it has made abundantly clear, the right is having its own anti-establishment moment, finally putting its money where its anti-government mouth has always been. Sanders and Trump both owed their unlikely popularity to their mutual assertion that, well, things are pretty shitty, so we should probably just set fire to the whole mess and start again; in response, Clinton foolishly reiterated America’s greatness, a smirky confidence re: her own eventual victory playing plainly on her face all the while.

In this confidence Clinton was not alone. New York magazine, for example, published a pre-election issue that depicted on the cover a Warholian image of Trump with the text “LOSER” superimposed. My stomach turns at this exuberant relic of optimism, arrogant optimism that reeks not only of complacency but also of complicity. The media played their part dutifully. And the dramatically inaccurate polls — can someone explain to me the utility of polls?! One could argue that their projected optimism about Clinton’s inevitable win may in itself explain Clinton’s loss. And so we have learned that optimism is not only a personal choice; it is a political choice, and one that lost us a gravely important election.

“Despair is a confident memory of the future, in [Laurence] Gonzalez’s resonant phrase,” writes Rebecca Solnit. “Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting.” Perhaps the public is wise enough to recognize this, if only on some instinctive level, and so come to distrust optimism. Solnit continues:

“Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task…Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out or that, if there is, you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have.”

So what is to be done, now that we are fully awake and ready for action? At first, I admit I raged a little. I raged at David, who blamed Clinton’s failure on her “unlikeability,” carefully dissecting the word and its insidious usage for him and noting that his male obliviousness matched my white obliviousness. I engaged in a debate I’d like never to repeat when David — a vice president at one of the most powerful companies on the planet, who has fortunately only experienced the (not insignificant) second-hand violence of watching the news — responded to the election pain of another female friend who was once raped, unconscious, at a party by insisting that anyway racism is a greater problem than misogyny, and so he could not really countenance her overemotional reaction to the prospect that a man who believes he has a right to women’s bodies now holds our highest office.

I raged at my father, who (it must be said) abstained from voting and who later attempted to comfort me by saying that politics are just politics and that I would love and laugh and work and play and, in short, live a happy and normal life over the course of these four years. He had the best intentions, but he was too oblivious or too complacent or too patriotic or, in short, too optimistic to realize that politics might indeed prevent many from leading happy and normal lives and that I might, as a female journalist, be among those many. The subtext was, “America is already great,” and for the first time I understood how unspeakably offensive that message could be; even while that e-mail was open in one browser, another was full of articles about Trump’s neo-Nazi, white supremacist, anti-gay appointments, some of whom believe that women should just stay off the Internet and out of the boardroom if they are tired of being abused.

But once we are done raging, what is the ethical value of adopting an optimistic stance regarding the motives of Trump supporters? Shall we extend the benefit of the doubt, citing economic troubles and trade agreements, in the hopes that a reformed Democratic party can adopt them in four years? Or does positive thinking beget normalization? Is there a responsibility to assume the worst, to conjure up the bleakest version of the racism and misogyny that are to some unclear degree at play, so that we may witness them courageously? As Nakul Krishna wrote about the Cecil Rhodes monument on the Oxford campus, which students recently protested on the grounds that it memorializes imperialism: “In a way, it’s good the statue’s going to stick around. It helps to know just how things stand.” Perhaps that’s an extreme way to think about a Trump presidency, but then again, perhaps there’s merit to hyperrealism.

I suppose that’s why I left the white clothes sitting there on the floor for so long: they were a monument to innocence lost, and I wanted simultaneously to mourn for that earlier self and punish her for her oversight. When I finally picked them up (it must have been Friday or Saturday), I thought about a line from Sarah Nicole Prickett’s “The Stanford Letters”:

“She is not asking to be believed, but remembering that she couldn’t believe it herself. If you were inclined to doubt her, now you can share in her incredulity and end up on her side just the same.”

I may have been oblivious with regards to the state of American racism, but I was also unprepared to learn that American misogyny is not simply a fringe movement, either. Even now, I continue to awaken to it in stages, still unwilling to see the depth of my own denial, still unwilling to believe that some invisible monster is holding me under. Like the “Emily Doe” about whom Prickett writes, I am more comfortable believing that rape can never happen to me, and likewise I am more comfortable believing that treacherous, slow-burning character attacks and invalidations aren’t, even now, happening. Things just don’t seem all that bad, until suddenly they do. Several female friends who had been as optimistic as I gave voice to the newfound fatalism I did not yet want to acknowledge. “If not her, who?” they said. “If not now, when?” A few days later, another friend quipped, as if in response, “All of the women in me are tired.”

I have no explanation for why women like myself were shocked by the misogyny, while communities of color were not particularly shocked by the racism. Or why women — even those who are most aware of the ways in which the country was, after all, built on the unpaid backs of our foremothers, too — haven’t adopted the same suspicious regard for patriotic optimism as people of color have. In part I suspect it is because the divisions between the genders are not nearly so stark; we women have fathers and brothers and husbands and dear friends, whom we trust, and that trust has tricked us into believing that fathers and brothers and husbands and dear friends, by and large, are worth trusting.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in “My President Was Black,” black people generally do not develop the trust of white people that so benefitted Obama, simply because they are not raised by and around them as he was. In any case, I am seeing for the first time what it is for an altogether impersonal event to herald a new understanding of my own vulnerability, even at the hands of some of those same men I trusted — the way the headlines will do, for people of color, on an almost weekly basis. This startling new experience of the world leads me to sympathize with David, to understand the distrust that develops, much as he wishes it wouldn’t, and the inevitability of that distrust disfiguring into antagonisms he does not intend. Conversely, it also makes me wonder about the benefits of hyperrealism. Perhaps the skepticism born of our newfound familiarity with institutionalized sexism precludes the feminist lowering of defenses, ever again.[4]

But how can we possibly live like that without falling into an unproductive despair? In this I turn again to Rebecca Solnit, who calls for hope but who also helpfully distinguishes hope from optimism. (I am not, apparently, the only one; Publishers Weekly reports that Solnit’s 2004 book Hope in the Dark sold out after the election.) “Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory [of the future] and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans,” she writes. In other words, hope is not overly confident or complacent. While optimism is an excuse for doing nothing, hope depends upon change and demands action.

If we think back to Obama’s own campaign, we might note that his message of “hope” differed substantially from Clinton’s message in that its focus was on the vast amount of work that needed doing to repair what Bush had done, rather than an insistence on the value of the status quo. Coates expertly examined the role of optimism in Obama’s own campaign and legacy, concluding that these traits were simultaneously the strengths that won him the presidency and the weaknesses that “blinded him to the appeal of Trump.” (“When assessing Trump’s chances, he was direct: He couldn’t win,” writes Coates. “‘As a general proposition, it’s hard to run for president by telling people how terrible things are,’ Obama once said to me.”) But we cannot overestimate the importance of Obama’s timing, and we cannot overestimate the importance of his offensive positioning.

At the risk of falling prey to the tired leftist tradition of making proclamations about who is allowed to say what, I’d also argue that Obama’s status as a political outsider and as a black man made his optimism far more agreeable. Clinton, for all her expertise[5], somehow became emblematic of people-in-charge as though she had invented these games, and when people-in-charge attempt to gaslight the populace into believing that everything is fine — particularly in the age of Black Lives Matter and widespread wage stagnation — it is incumbent upon us to disagree. Out of Clinton’s mouth, “America is already great” sounded a lot like, “I quite like the smell of the swamp.” Perhaps optimism could never have worked for any other Democrat the way that it did for Obama, and perhaps it will never work again. But hope is still available to us, and hope is still strategically necessary. Though we would have to be fools not to see that it will get far worse before it gets better, hope means believing that, if we are dedicated, we can still overcome. Hope is what motivates this continued dedication.

Numerous theories suddenly appeared to liberals like puzzles worked out in dreams on the morning of November 9th: we should blame elite white feminism, or social media echo chambers, or divisive identity politics, or, ahem, optimism. But while there has been much hand-wringing about factionalist in-fighting, personally I am pleased to see that, within days, progressives began the difficult work of self-evaluation and course correction. Though we are tired we are picking through the rubble and examining the evidence. We are performing the autopsy, not only of the failed campaign but also of the failed tradition of dissent. We are denouncing irony, since we have already recognized that it’s as treacherous as swaggering confidence. We can afford hope because, as Solnit writes, “Revolutions are first of all ideas.” Here she demonstrates with two examples:

“There’s no going back. You can abolish the reproductive rights women gained in 1973, with Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion — or rather ruled that women had a right to privacy over their own bodies that precluded the banning of abortion. But you can’t so easily abolish the idea that women have certain inalienable rights.”

“Though [domestic violence] now generates a significant percentage of the calls to police, enforcement has been crummy in most places — but the ideas that a husband has the right to beat his wife and that it’s a private matter are not returning anytime soon.”

Though I am not optimistic, neither have I exhausted hope.

 


[1] Name has been changed.

[2] I suppose I should pause here to defend my deliberate conflation of patriotism, obliviousness, and complacency with “optimism.” Some of these connections should be obvious:

  1. In the American mythology, a dissident can never be a patriot. And so in order to be a patriot—that is, to believe unequivocally that the United States is the greatest country on earth—one must either be oblivious to its violent history and its scandalous failure to take care of its own, or else a moral relativist in the extreme.
  2. To know these things and ignore or accept them anyway is complacency.
  3. To advance a complacently patriotic agenda that considers the American modus operandi, along with its unwillingness to address historical failures and its perpetuation of broken and unfair systems, to be both satisfactory and desirable is to take a rather derangedly optimistic stance. I have in mind the sort of optimism displayed by robotic neighbors with plastered-on smiles in suburban-dystopia horror flicks — slick yet eerie, vaguely but indubitably descended from Madison Avenue.
  4. And anyway, isn’t there something inherently optimistic in unchecked capitalism, that cornerstone of American patriotism? In the idea that each individual is capable of solving her own problems with the right balance of bootstrapping and uppers? In the conviction that laissez-faire economics is as mysteriously benevolent as the checks and balances in the delicate ecosystems it occasionally destroys?

[3] “But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress,” writes Zadie Smith. “It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighborhood, such incremental change feels enormous.”

[4] I should say that the men in my life often surprise me, also, with their profound understanding. On the same day I picked the white clothes up off the floor, a delivery arrived from my boyfriend: election consolation flowers, also white.

[5] When we talk about shattered glass ceilings, what we are celebrating is precisely the achievement of insiderness. Clinton is one of very few female insiders in our political system, and without her husband even she may never have been allowed to arrive at such a position. All this to say, it is with some irony that I critique her for her insiderness, because while I believed it to be problematic to her candidacy, it is precisely this quality that I and millions of other women rightly celebrated about her. Furthermore, I acknowledge that she had to champion the status quo in order to eventually disrupt it with her candidacy. Evenfurthermore, I also recognize that no male in the history of male insiders — not W, not Jeb!, not a single Kennedy — has ever faced the same criticism for their elitism, which owes at least something to our outrageous expectation that women behave at all times like saints.

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