“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops — at all
In the United States of America today, that bird has not stopped singing. But during these polarized and stressful times, it is losing some of its feathers, and its tune is being blocked for and by many.
This is a dangerous condition for the future of our American democracy, its citizens, and the people of the world.
The Importance of Hope
We have been writing about the pivotal importance of hope to America’s future for more than a decade. We stressed its importance in our book, Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work, writing
Hope is not a strategy. Nonetheless, hope is a necessary but not sufficient condition for surviving tough times and achieving great things.
Hope may not make something so. But a lack of hope makes accomplishing anything virtually impossible. Hope is the fuel of strivers and doers. If hope disappears, progress ends.
Hope is essential. It is what keeps us going against what appear to be overwhelming odds and adversity.
We went on to assert that “America is a nation founded on hope.” We revisited the pivotal importance of hope to the future of America in a blog posted in November of 2021. We began that blog as follows:
We have spent the past two years impaled in partisan political conflict aimed at blocking problem-solving, collaboration, and compromise. This conflict has increased citizen skepticism and cynicism and reduced hope.
Those are lines from a HuffPost blog titled “Hope Dies Last” that we posted in October 2012. Now, nearly a decade later, that citizen skepticism and cynicism has turned to anger and hostility. And, with the perpetuation of the Big Lie, the anti-vaccination movement, and the assault on the U.S. Capitol, this contentious conflict has been pushed to the verge of a civil war.
Hope is on trial. The question is will it be given the death sentence? That is up to all of us who believe in truth and the future of our great nation to decide.
Two articles this summer, one by Thomas Edsall in the New York Times and the other by E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post, make it clear that hope in the United States continues to be on trial.
Edsall’s column for the Times, titled ‘Gut Level Hatred’ is Consuming Our Political Life”, drawing upon the work of political scientists and pollsters, paints a distressing picture of how this trial for hope could end. Edsall begins his guest essay by stating:
Divisions between Democrats and Republicans have expanded far beyond the traditional fault lines based on race, education, gender, the urban-rural divide, and economic ideology.
Polarization now encompasses sharp disagreements over the significance of patriotism and nationalism as well as a fundamental split between those trying to restore perceived past glories and those embracing the future.
Dionne’s column for the Post is directly focused on the need for hope and paints a more optimistic picture. In his column, Dionne observes:
If hope isn’t exactly in the air these days, the work it does is on a lot of thoughtful minds. Two books published in the past year — one by an economist, the other by a theologically inclined humanities scholar — bring home why hope is central to policy-making and decent politics.
Those two books are The Power of Hope, authored by Carol Graham, an economist, as well as Dionne’s colleague at the Brookings Institution, and The Commonwealth of Hope, authored by Michael Lamb, a Wake Forest University scholar.
Dionne uses quotes from each book to highlight their relevance to America’s current situation. From Graham, he notes:
“Despair in the United States today is a barrier to reviving our labor markets and productivity,” she writes. “It jeopardizes our well-being, longevity, families, and communities.”
To pick a simple example Graham discusses: Nurturing hope matters to the success of job training and education policies because “they will not be taken up if people do not have hope in their own futures.” That’s because hope is not just a belief “that things will be better in the future,” but also confidence in “the ability to do something about that future.”
From Lamb’s book on St. Augustine, he notes,
Contrary to a popular perception of Augustine as an otherworldly thinker who accents “darkness and pessimism,” Lamb sketches a persuasive portrait of a thinker who “encourages a realistic hope for a better form of community not only in heaven but on earth.”
Lamb’s Augustine grasps “both the limits and possibilities of politics” — wisdom demands we always keep both in mind — and he is thus “an especially valuable, if unlikely, ally in our contemporary moment.”
We would add a third book to the Hope reading list. It is The Book of Hope by renowned British primatologist and anthropologist Dame Jane Goodall. Her book, which we cited in our 2021 blog, provides four compelling reasons for hope: “the amazing human intellect; the resilience of nature; the power of young people: and, the indomitable human spirit.”
The Ropes of Hope
In 2023, we remain hopeful not because of what we read but because of what we see going on around us and what is being achieved in our country and by its citizens. In spite of the divided state of the nation and the bipolar finger-pointing, America continues to be a work in process and a place of and for hope.
In 1966, Senator Robert F. Kennedy went to South Africa’s University of Cape Town and gave what became known as his “Ripple of Hope” speech. . In that speech, Kennedy said:
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls.
In the more than one-half a century since RFK gave his speech, those ripples of hope in the United States have grown into currents and been transformative. They have not made the country “perfect” but they made it a better and fairer nation for all — most especially for those who were not empowered at the time of the country’s founding (e.g., people of color, women, and white males who did not own property).
Those ripples of hope have become so strong and permanent that they are now ropes of hope (In Hebrew the word hope literally means rope). Those ropes and their strands can be built upon and strengthened. There are countless ropes of hope in the United States today.
Three which come top of mind for us are: the progress of African Americans; the re-emergence of the labor movement; and the inclusive attitudes of those in Generation Z.
In July, the State of Florida issued its Academic Standards for Social Studies for 2023, which inferred that some of the progress of African-Americans could be traced back to slavery, declaring “slaves developed skills, which in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
This absurd claim could not be further from the truth and was an attempt to rewrite the story of African-American history in the United States. As Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, pointed out in a guest essay on “Black History” for the New York Times, published in February before the Florida social studies standards brouhaha, there was a similar effort to rewrite that history during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War (late 1800’s to early 1900’s).
One of its leaders was “the historian general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Mildred Lewis Rutherford of Athens, Georgia.” According to Dr. Gates, she published “more than 25 books and pamphlets” in which she wrote things such as:
- “The negroes of the South were never called slaves.”
- They were “well-fed, well-clothed and well-housed.”
- On slavery: “This was an education that taught the negro self-control, obedience and perseverance — yes taught him to realize his weaknesses and how to grow stronger in the battle of life.”
Ms. Rutherford was creating a revisionist history more than a century ago. Florida is doing so now.
Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post, called Florida out for its “obscene revisionism.” In his powerful and personal July 24 column, he relates a story from his own enslaved family history and other historical facts, and then explains:
The problem with all of this is that it seeks to contextualize American slavery as something other than what it was: a unique historical crime, perpetuated over 2½ centuries. Slavery was practiced here on an industrial scale, based on race and the belief in white supremacy, with not just individuals but also their descendants consigned to lifelong servitude.
Robinson concludes his piece by proclaiming, “What happened happened. We will not move forward until we truthfully acknowledge where we have been.”
The good news is that there is a rope of hope for African Americans, and they have and can continue to move forward. That rope of hope exists to grasp hold of because of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the ripples of hope created by individuals such as: Emmett Till’s mother, insisting on an open casket for her son at his funeral, Rosa Parks not giving up her seat on that bus, those nine kids who integrated that high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, the demonstrators, like Congressman John Lewis, who marched and were assaulted in Selma, Alabama; and, of course, Martin Luther King Jr talking and walking with his people toward the “mountain top and the Promised Land.”
Those courageous actions and others began forming the rope of hope. In the years since, the rope has grown longer and stronger, but there is still much work to do. Building upon the words of Eugene Robinson, that work can be done if we truthfully acknowledge where we have been, where we are currently, and where we need to be in the future in terms of African Americans and people of color in the United States.
Re-Emergence of the Labor Movement
While African Americans were just beginning the upward trajectory for progress in the ’50s and ’60s, the unionized labor movement was hitting its peak and would soon start to level off and to decline rapidly.
The statistics tell the story. As we noted in Working the Pivot Points,
Between 1973 and 1983 private sector union membership went from 24.2 percent to 16.5 percent (a decline of 32 percent) and public sector union membership went from 23.0 to 36.7 percent (an increase of nearly 60 percent).
Public-sector union membership from 1983 to 2011 hovered in the 36 to 37+ percent range. In stark contrast, private-sector union membership tumbled from the 16.5 percent in 1983 to 6.9 percent in 2011 (a decline of almost 58 percent in that time frame, and a decline of over 71 percent since 1973).
These were devastating results for the labor movement, for progress toward creating individual economic well-being, and for reducing inequality across and throughout the American economy. As we noted at that time (2013),
America’s unions played an essential role in the development of our democracy and helped create the strongest middle class in the history of the world. We believe that unions can play a role in building America’s future and ensuring a vital middle class. We know, however, that hoping and believing will not make it so.
One decade later, in 2023, it appears that unions are assuming that pivotal role again and that their rope of hope, which had been considerably frayed, is becoming stronger again. It is highly unlikely that it will ever be what it was before. But over the past few years, the organized labor movement has reestablished itself as a player in the American economic system.
E.J. Dionne emphasized this in his Washington Post column, published on Labor Day, 2022, stating:
Government policies are shifting in the direction of workers. Unions are winning workplace elections at a rapid clip. And just last week, Gallup reported that approval of unions hit its highest level in 57 years.
We agreed with Dionne’s assessment in our Labor Day blog of last year, opining:
In 2022 there are strong, fresh winds blowing which are developing and pushing the union waves forward. But the employers have built dams they will reinforce, and will build new and additional ones in an attempt to reduce the strength of those waves and to prevent them from reaching shore.
Overall, 2023 has been another good year for the union movement. There have been some victories and some defeats. The defining moment, though, was the agreement reached near the end of July between UPS and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which averted a strike of the more than 330,000 Teamster-represented workers and was seen as a win by both sides.
Gen-Z Moves Forward
Unlike the civil rights movement and the labor movement, the Gen-Z movement (those born between 1997 and 2012) is in its start-up stage. The members of this generation have just begun shaping their rope of hope, and because of the time period during which they have grown up, they are bringing a new perspective to this challenge and opportunity.
Those in Gen Z have been accused, among other things of being apathetic, uninvolved, and selfish. John Della Volpe, Director of Polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, wrote a book titled Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America (Fight) in which he rejects that characterization and presents a portrait of a thoughtful and engaged generation.
In January of 2022 after Fight was released, Della Volpe was interviewed by Juana Summers on NPR’s All Things Considered. When she asked Della Volpe what inspired him to write his book, he responded:
Frankly, I think that everything that I was told and everything that many people think about Gen Z was, frankly, wrong. And I wanted to write this book to kind of correct those myths. I think every generation has had its share of angst and turmoil. I’m Gen X, but I don’t think there is any generation in 75 years that has been confronted with more chaos, more quickly in their young lives than Gen Z or Zoomers.
Della Volpe went on to describe some of that chaos, which included: 9/11, the Great Recession, and the COVID-19 pandemic, and concluded his response by stating, “So that’s where they came of age. But rather than melting, it made them harder and made them tougher and made them more focused to do great things.”
Surveys done by the Pew Research Center and The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University revealed some of the areas and issues that matter to Gen Z.
The Pew Research Center survey, released in May 2020 before the presidential elections, highlighted that Gen Z is more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations and “on track to being the best-educated generation.” It also showed that “Gen Zers are progressive and pro-government, most see the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as a good thing, and they’re less likely than older generations to see the United States as superior to other nations.”
The CIRCLE survey, conducted in November 2022 after the midterm elections of that year, found that “About 2 in 5 (39%) of Gen Z respondents ranked inflation and gas prices as one of their top three issues, followed by abortion (30%), jobs (26%), and climate change (23%).” Other areas ranked in the top three by many included gun violence prevention (21%) and racism (18%).
Gen Z will move to the forefront in influencing policies and practices in the U.S. in the years and decades ahead. If they maintain their focus, their impact will help make those policies and practices fairer and better for all.
In summary, those three areas are among the many reasons to be hopeful in 2023. Add to them, this statement from an opinion piece posted by the editorial board of the Washington Post on July 29, 2023:
The surprises keep coming for the U.S. economy — and nearly all have been worth cheering for lately. Growth was better than expected this spring. Inflation is cooling off faster than anticipated. Unemployment remains near half-century lows. Optimism is picking up. Consumer spending remains solid. Wages are now rising faster than inflation. UPS workers are not going to strike after the company gave them a large raise. The stock market is near all-time highs. Wall Street banks no longer predict an imminent recession. Business investment is picking up. Even housing appears to be turning around. The nation might be able to achieve what many experts deemed impossible: bringing down inflation without triggering mass layoffs and a downturn.
The Post editorial goes on to note:
That doesn’t mean the country lacks problems. Lower-income households still feel higher costs, a reminder that the inflation battle isn’t over. Owning a home remains out of reach for many, and credit card debt is at a record high. Beyond economics, the ongoing GOP assaults on abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, and basic facts about slavery are another reminder of how far from normal some aspects of life remain.
Two new problems came into the spotlight soon after the Post opinion editorial was published. One was the expected and informed indictment of the former president on charges for the role he played in trying to reverse the results of the 2020 elections. The other was the unexpected and uninformed downgrading of the U.S. credit rating by the capital market company Fitch, primarily due to political dysfunction in Washington, D.C.
Each of these problems will create different forms of uncertainty and prove that the future is promised to no one. We do not know how those problems and the others that confront the nation now will be resolved. We do know that without hope there is no future, and they will not be.
We also know, as we wrote earlier in this blog, that Gen Z will be playing an increasing role in creating hope and problem-solving in the future. They will not be able to do that by themselves, however. It will be the responsibility of good and responsible citizens of all generations.
David Hogg, a Gen Z activist who wrote the foreword for Della Volpe’s book — and a survivor of the tragic mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 — understands this. He made this point directly during the NPR interview with Juana Summers with Della Volpe, in which he participated.
When Summers asked Hogg what we need to understand about Gen Z as we look into the future, he answered:
I often hear older people come up to me and say, “I’m so thankful that your generation is standing up, and we can finally kind of pass the baton off to you.” It can’t be that way. It can’t. It’s going to take every generation working together in order to fix these things. If our older generations or our country is simply putting it on younger people to fix these things, they’re never going to get fixed. Because as powerful as we are, it has to be an inter-generational coalition of people that work hand in hand, and don’t patronize or talk down to young people, but lead with young people and our vision and ideas for the future.
Those of us with hope must work to ensure that our hope is used as the impetus to build that coalition. That coalition will collaborate in moving the United States forward and upward, toward becoming the more perfect union envisioned by the founders.
That said, in closing, let us leave you with this thought:
Hope is a word
Hope is a bird
Hope will not die
Because hope flies.