The first time I addressed a group of Democrats was at the Democratic convention in Atlanta in 1984. Michael Dukakis had asked me to speak in support of the education plank in the platform, but at the end of my service in the Carter administration I had accepted the position as president and CEO of the nonpartisan Council on Foundations, so I pondered how this might affect my standing with some of my members, who already considered me too liberal. I decided to accept the invitation and gave my best nonpartisan speech about the centrality of public education in the American narrative—only to be told afterwards by a friend that he had never heard me sound so partisan.
In the years since, I have never deluded myself into thinking that it was possible for me to give a nonpartisan speech to a partisan audience, so I speak to you today as a Democrat who believes very strongly that the most effective critic of society is the one who is willing to be a servant, and the most effective servant is the one who is willing to be a critic. I have served my country as an officer in the United States Army and as a diplomat abroad, but I felt just as patriotic in the 1960s when I was helping to organize and later lead the Civil Rights Movement in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and protesting unjust wars in California. I felt just as patriotic when I was chairing President Clinton’s Commission that developed and still oversees AmeriCorps. I felt just as patriotic when I was chairing the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I say this simply to emphasize what a pleasure it is to share a few observations with a group of like-minded patriots who seek to continue the efforts to form a more perfect union.
In the last month, I have travelled across the United States and even outside the country, and everywhere I have gone I have encountered Democrats who are still working their way through Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, with some still stuck on denial, some on anger, while others remain in a state of depression. I want, therefore, to use this occasion as an opportunity to share with you several observations about hope and history in times of adversity. While I want mostly to draw from my own experience, I will begin with a quote from Maya Angelou, who was not just a great poet and playwright, but in many ways a kind of street theologian.
When Maya reflected on the tragedies in her early life, she wrote that “the spring of hope is often immersed in the winter of despair.” You see a young black boy, fourteen or fifteen years old, whose parents were intentionally underdeveloped, maybe semiliterate, maybe third generation on welfare, but “he walks down the street as if he had oil wells in his backyard.” And then Maya adds, “If I had come down from Mars or Pluto, I would look at people like him and I would say ‘Who are these people? Who are they? How dare they hope, with their history?’”
This is not unlike those in our midst who now ask how dare we Democrats hope to form a more perfect union when it is the forces of disunity that seem now to prevail. The great question of the moment is how do we develop the capacity to be realistic about our predicament and still be able to look beyond and see the potential for something different and deeper.
The Distinction between Hope and Optimism
And so my first observation is that I have been able to remain hopeful in the midst of great adversity because I learned early in life to make a distinction between hope and optimism. It is not just hope-theologians but hope-psychologists as well who remind us that optimism adopts the role of the spectator who surveys the evidence in order to infer that things are going to get better. Hope, on the other hand, enacts the stance of the participant who is able to look beyond the evidence and see alternative possibilities.
I was born in the bayou country of Louisiana where I studied from hand-me-down books in hand-me-down buildings, walked miles past the white school to the “colored” school on the other side of town. I am sure that others looking at me from another planet would have said, “How dare he hope with his history?” They would want to know how it is that instead of feeling defeated, I felt defiant and more determined. The truth is that hope is not so much an act of memory as it is an act of imagination and courage. It is an acknowledgement that what you can imagine, you can probably create.
These are without doubt difficult and dangerous times. Yet, there is reason for hope because moments of crisis are often moments of great possibility. These are the moments when we need to remind ourselves that we did it before and we can do it again. We Democrats will need to be not just people of hope, but conveyors of hope. When I left Connecticut and our sanitized protest on the New Haven green in the 1960s, I was not prepared for how much my belief in the ultimate triumph of our cause would be tested in George Wallace’s Alabama. I had to persuade myself and convince those who followed me that this elevated form of human potential was indeed possible.
And that was one of the reasons why the mass meeting was a staple of our movement. Before every street march or public demonstration, we assembled in a church or auditorium, usually a church, to inspire and persuade each other not simply to face the hostile bystanders, the police dogs, and those behind them with clubs and cattle prods. We had to keep those who stood with us focused on the potential of the human spirit as well.
It was that same potential that enabled us to keep hope alive in what appeared to others to be almost hopeless situations. As [Dr. Martin Luther King] put in one of our mass meetings, “Basic to our philosophy is a deep faith in the future. Ours is a movement based on hope because when hope fades the movement dies.” That is why the movement song stated, “We shall overcome. Deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome.” When we faced hostile mobs, when we were thrown in jail and when we faced physical death, there was something special about being able to sing: “We are not afraid. We shall overcome someday.”
Many who reveled in what a young senator named Barack Obama had to say a few years ago about the audacity of hope, and even what first lady Michelle had to say a few days ago, now decry this emphasis on hope as somehow misplaced. But hope can no longer be regarded as simply a matter of the heart. It is comprised of not only emotions but thinking as well. Researchers in many scientific disciplines are now trying to understand the role of hope in sustaining innovation; the relationship of hope levels to stress, commitment, and performance; even the impact of hope in business organizations on profits, job satisfaction, and retention rates. Hope provides a good metaphor for understanding the role of leadership in times of adversity.
Reaffirming and Reimagining the Meaning of Democracy
My second observation is that we can be hopeful because we have an opportunity to not simply defend and redefine the true meaning of democracy, but to reaffirm and reimagine its obligations in communities that are integrating and fragmenting at the same time. It seems to be our peculiar destiny to live in a world in which the more interdependent we become, the more people are turning inward to smaller communities of meaning and memory. While some see this as reason for despair, it may be that this search for beginnings, the focus on heritage and history, is a necessary step in the search for common ground.
When I talk about Democrats as defenders of democracy, I am cautioned by the fact that our Constitution once held that people who look like me were less than full persons in its delineation of rights. But the framers of this almost sacred document had the language right when they suggested that in order to form a more perfect union we would have to establish justice, and in order to ensure domestic tranquility we would have to promote the general welfare. And that is why Democrats and democracy are so closely intertwined.
Our mission is clear and fundamental. It is to form a more perfect union. It is important, however, that while we emphasize this as our patriotic duty we make a distinction between patriotism that leads to community and patriotism that leads to tribalism. One affirms a sense of loyalty to the group that shapes a sense of belonging or identity. The other also includes loyalty to a group, but it is combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group. Patriotism should ennoble and include while tribalism corrupts and excludes. The true patriot recognizes the connectedness of humanity and why it is in our national self-interest to show respect for those who may differ in color or culture, religion, race or region.
I emphasize the passion of the patriot because it would be a grave mistake for us to concede the idea of patriotism to those who engage in symbolism without substance or public memory that is grounded in deception and delusion.
When I left Connecticut in 1963 to help organize and later lead the civil rights movement in Tuscaloosa, many called our movement a revolution of the underprivileged. What we have seen more recently is a counter-revolution fueled and financed by a small group of the over-privileged. In the Sixties, we spoke of a system of government in which the people have the power, so we struggled for the right to vote, but we soon found that even though we had the vote we did not have the power, and now the counter-revolution seeks to take away even the limited power of the vote. And that is why our calling is to empower those who have been strategically and systematically disempowered.
Forming a more perfect union is not just a slogan. It means reaffirming and reimagining the centrality of community in the American story. We need to make clear what we stand for as well as who we stand for and what we stand against. Any of you who have heard me speak before know how much I like to quote the black mystic, poet, and theologian Howard Thurman in this regard. Dr. Thurman was a mentor to Martin Luther King who was fond of saying, “I want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.” That should be a part of every elevator speech we make as Democrats. To those who fail to recognize that the fear of difference is a fear of the future, we need to say, “I simply want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.”
I wrote my recently published book by the Duke University Press because I wanted people of all sorts to imagine what our world would be like if more Americans were able to say, “I want to be an American without making it difficult for an African to be an African, an Asian to be an Asian, or a Latin American to be a Latin American.” I wrote the book because I wanted more Christians to be able to say, “I want to be a Christian without making it difficult for a Jew to be a Jew, a Muslim to be a Muslim, or a Buddhist to be a Buddhist.”
Our recent national campaign was a perfect storm in which many factors came together to create the moment that made the results possible. Some people rightly point to the role of racism, but manifestations of racism were neither new nor unexpected. My concern was with those who stood silently on the sidelines while our black president was delegitimized and disrespected and people of color regularly insulted. I heard a lot about angry white males, but a majority of white women voted for a man who not only engaged in but bragged about sexual assault. I now hear a lot about the declining sense of self and the rise of economic and social insecurity in the Rust Belt, but that should have been obvious long before we read J.D. Vance’s memoir of a family and culture in crisis.
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I agree with those analysts who tell us that if we are to form a more perfect union, we will need to better understand the problems and pathologies of those who came together in 2016 to form an alliance of the alienated. But I am deeply concerned about several factors that continue to contribute to the present national mood. The first is what psychologists call free-floating anxiety. We have had high profile moments of national anxiety before. 9/11 was such a moment. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King was such a moment. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters have been such a moment. But today’s anxiety is free-floating in that it is the result of a confluence of events rather than a single disaster. Many Americans are so anxious that they are even anxious about the fact they are anxious.
It is not just anxiety that plagues us. It is also alienation, with many people, both black and white, feeling disrespected, disconnected, and disempowered. We fail in our efforts to connect with them because we still think of community as a shared sense of place when it is increasingly clear that social cohesion will now require a shared sense of belonging. Our problems and our pathologies come not just from anxiety and alienation but adversity as well, with many experiences driving people to look for scapegoats rather than solutions.
And finally there is the role of ambiguity. In times of crisis or perceived crisis, many people look for absolutes and reject ambiguity. They want to believe that the issues are less complex and the solutions less limited than they are being told, so they turn to demagogues who proclaim one truth and one theology.
Hope and History May Still Rhyme
My final observation then is that despite the dark clouds looming on the horizon, we Democrats still have the potential to make hope and history rhyme. We are a political party that, like our nation, is neither fixed nor final. We are an organization in a society that is always in the making. The issues before us are so enormous that it would be easy to stand on the sidelines, lament the scope of the challenge, and respond to consequences rather than address causes. This is a time, however, when we need a new generation of activists who are willing to take risk and leaders who are not afraid to think big and act boldly.
We may be out of power but we are not out of passion. In communities like this across the country, there are Democrats already preparing not just to take back the power, but to be the architects of a new era. Like the character in Sophocles’ play, they hear these extraordinary lines echoing from the clouds and bouncing off the mountaintop.
History says, don’t hope on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.
If there is fire on the mountain or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing he outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
Sophocles could have been writing these words for we Democrats. In communities far and wide, I think I hear the birth-cry of new life at its term. I hope you hear it too, for there is no greater gift in politics than the gift of hope. As Vaclav Havel put it in the midst of his own struggle, “The gift of hope is as big a gift as the gift of life itself.” Thank you and keep the faith.