Hope is one of the most galvanising and powerful emotions. It is the thing that has driven some of our greatest achievements as a species. It has kept people alive in times of despair and sorrow. It has driven movements for social change, such as the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. Hope is essential. Without it humanity cannot move forward.
But when hope is lost, it can be utterly devastating. Worse it can result in other powerful emotions, ones that drive people not to do good, but ill.
It is now a decade since the rise of Barack Obama in the 2008 US Presidential Primary. After 8 years of the Bush administration, American liberals and much of the world were very cynical about US politics. At the start of the presidential primary, the likely Democrat nominee was Hilary Clinton, who like her husband Bill was seen as Republic Lite. Chicago Lawyer and Senator Barack Obama surprised many in the political class through his upset victory in the primary.
Obama offered hope. He ran on a platform of improving health care, closing Guantanamo Bay, improving labour (labor in the US) rights and being a genuinely reformist president. The first since the Reagan years. In short, Obama offered hope to the poorest, disenfranchised and alienated sectors of American society who’d been ignored for decades.
When elected president later that year, the Democratic Party also held majorities in both houses. He was the first Democrat President to achieve this since the 1970s. This wasn’t to last long.
Weeks into his presidency the financial crises were really starting to bite. Banks, having been bailed out by the US government, proceeded to pay their executives bonuses and foreclose on working people who couldn’t pay their mortgages. Meanwhile, Obama’s economic team was packed with Wall Street insiders.
His big achievement in his first term, and in fact his presidency was healthcare. He did more than any other president to pursue this cause. However, the Republicans fought him every step of the way. The end product was very much a compromised Obama Care package, which low to middle-income Americans had to pay the cost of.
For most of Obama’s time in office, he faced a hostile Republican Party from 2010 had a majority in Congress and eventually also in the Senate. However early in his presidency, he didn’t help himself. One of Obama’s criticisms of the previous Bush administration was the way it tried to force Congress and Senate to support the President’s legislation. During the health care reforms in 2009, Obama at first tried to find a compromise with Republicans and wanted to respect the independent powers of both houses. Very noble. Politically inept. The Bush administration knew how to drive a policy agenda, and used this to its full advantage after 9/11. By contrast, Obama’s respect for the constitution, gave Republicans space to have a go.
I regard Obama as the best US President in my lifetime (I was born in the 80s during the Reagan era). On Gun Control for example I think he did the best he could. He was ultimately a disappointing President. Obama promised hope and intended to deliver that through the US political system. The problem is, that system is flawed. He gave people hope in a political system which couldn’t deliver on the promise.
We all know what happened next. Hope turned to Anger. Donald Trump’s call to drain the Swamp in Washington resonated. Both Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Trump surprised commentators with their rise in support. Both talked of a broken political system, a message that clearly resonated with large sections of the American public.
America isn’t the only country where people have been offered hope, only to be bitterly disappointed. This little ditty about Nick Clegg, former Liberal Democrat leader in the UK shows similar frustration in a politician who in 2010 had given much hope for change. Recent Italian elections saw the crushing defeat of the Democratic Party, which only a few years earlier had won on a promise of hope.
The reality is that hope is a very powerful tool to use on an election campaign. Nothing motivates people to head to the ballot box like the hope that their lives may get better. But nothing will turn people off politics more than having this hope dashed. Worse it can drive people to the politics of anger and hate, which sadly the world is seeing more and more of.
In politics, and life generally people should be offered hope. But this hope needs to be real. If you give people hope in something, you need to be able to see it through. Giving people hope, only to disappoint later is cruel, damaging and irresponsible. To give people hope and then deliver, is by contrast one of the most positive and powerful things you can do as a human.