03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Progressive Hope

I don't want to get too gooshy as we go into the Thanksgiving holiday weekend by giving you all the stuff I'm thankful for, but it does seem like an appropriate moment to be a little more reflective than usual. The thing I want to focus on today is the hope for a better world.

It is very easy to be pessimistic and cynical about the chance for things to get better as we fight our issue and political battles. Wealthy powerful special interests are entrenched and seem able to run everything. Too many politicians are incompetent or corrupt. Well-intentioned organizations are sometimes pretty ineffectual. The establishment's conventional wisdom seems set in stone. And I think we have seen so many things in the last few decades that have made us cynical about our government and questioning about our leaders, it is easy to think that nothing will ever change. I know for me, reading the Church committee report about the CIA, The Pentagon Papers, and the Nixon White House tapes transcripts as a young man was enough to make me very skeptical about the nature of our government at the time.

I think a certain level of healthy skepticism about our government and the establishment is a very good thing, and should be cultivated. The problem arises when skepticism turns cynical and pessimistic, and infects how we view every single thing in life and politics. At the heart of progressivism is the hope that it is possible to make a better world, that progress is indeed within our reach. When Barack Obama ran a campaign with a slogan he borrowed from Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers, Yes We Can, and preached his gospel of hope, he was tapping into a long progressive tradition dating back to our very founding as a country. Heading into that terrible winter at Valley Forge, Tom Paine, wrote: "Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it and repulse it." Lincoln at Gettysburg, at that terrible moment honoring those tens of thousands of fallen soldiers at their gravesites, spoke of the hope "that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth." Martin Luther King, Jr., in a discouraging moment in his great work, said that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it curves toward justice", and the civil rights movement anthem's chorus sang out "We Shall Overcome".

We progressives should embrace the hope that our movement, the progressive movement, has always carried as its banner. It is conservatives who have always feared change and doused the flames of hope, conservatives who said government could not do anything right or make progress for the American people.

I write this because I see too often the deep cynicism of many friends in the progressive movement, the assumption that virtually every politician is corrupted by being an insider, that every compromise in the legislative process is a sleazy one, that every progressive group is a sell-out. I see it in the responses I sometimes get when I write about my hopes for passing legislation that could be improved on in the future, where people ask why I think any piece of legislation will be improved on given that corporations run America. I see it in articles by progressive thinkers like Jamie Galbraith, who wrote on Monday an entire blog post about how hopeless everything was in terms of making changes in economic policy. I see it in progressive talk show hosts and comedians and media figures: a sense of gloom about any prospects for a better future are everywhere I look.

While righteous anger and cynical humor are an important part of our work, progressivism that is at its core cynical and pessimistic doesn't work over the long run. For one thing, it will burn itself out. When I was a young organizer being trained, I was told that you can't organize people if you are too depressed to be hopeful, that if you were feeling burnt out, you should take a vacation or even get into a different line of work. I still believe that to be true. Righteous anger is a great thing, and can feed you for a while, but if it's not leavened with hope, it won't sustain you over the long good fight. But it also doesn't work because the internal contradiction is too great. Telling people that we can change things for the better while being cynical about any hope for change is a self-defeating philosophy.

Albert Camus wrote in The Plague that "once the faint stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of the plague ended." It is our job as progressives not just to attack the powers that be, not just to fight against the establishment, but to breathe life into those faint stirrings of hope, and to believe in them ourselves. It is easy to be a cynic with all the bad things that happen in the world. It takes more courage to believe that we can, someday soon, overcome. It is our hope and optimism that gives us the strength to keep fighting the odds against us, that keeps us going in the face of the money and power of the entrenched special interests. And history is very clear on this point: those with the faith and hope that they could indeed overcome the odds did quite often prevail. The abolitionists won their 40-year battle, the suffragists prevailed after 90 years of struggle, Jim Crow was finally beaten 90 years after African-American rights were abandoned by the North with the end of reconstruction. Through decades of violence, derision, arrests, intimidation, our progressive ancestors never gave into despair and defeatism. We should take their example to heart, and have hope for the future, hope that we can make progress, hope that we can build a more perfect union. Hope and virtue have survived: now let's make them flourish.