Many years ago, I was in the audience when the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil-rights activist and election mobilizer, gave a speech. He often used the catchphrase, “Keep hope alive!” when he spoke, and he did so that time. The audience picked it up as a chant, shouting out in unison: “Keep hope alive!” It was a memorable bit of political showmanship.
A few years later, I gave a speech at a small college in Iowa. I used it to analyze all the challenges our country faced, domestic and foreign, and finished thinking I’d done a pretty good job of laying out our problems. Afterward, a young student came up to me. “That was a marvelous speech, Congressman,” she said. “I’ve just got one question: Is there any hope?”
I realized then that, far from rising to the occasion, I had failed. Jesse Jackson was right: You always have to leave your listeners with hope, and I had not done that.
This is hard to pull off, of course — possibly harder now than it was then. We face a long list of seemingly intractable problems, from climate change to mass shootings to threats to our democratic processes to overseas rivals willing to test us at every turn. It’s easy to get discouraged and to believe that we cannot solve or manage those problems — and then to give in to despair. But Jackson and that student were right. We constantly need reminding that we can change things for the better.
The reason, actually, is straightforward. The backbone of our system of representative democracy is its faith in ordinary Americans to step up to their responsibility as citizens to improve their corner of the world — by their own direct actions as well as by making discriminating judgments about politicians and policies. If you rob people of hope, then you rob them of a reason to be involved.
In decades of talking to people all over the country, I have been repeatedly impressed by the strength of citizens’ desire to improve their communities. This often reflected itself in specific projects — a bridge, road, or renovations to a local school — but it also applied to supporting quality leaders who could get things done for their communities.
To be sure, people were often wary of politics: they thought it was filled with messiness and noise. But at the end of the day, they saw the need for deal-making, compromise, and negotiation. I think this is still true for the majority of Americans, though an alarming number these days want to elect political leaders who will brook no compromise — and, indeed, seem to take an almost punitive approach to fellow citizens and politicians who disagree with them. They want to extinguish hope.
Still, I believe that most Americans are solidly pragmatic. They recognize the complexities of the challenges we face, see the limitations on what can be accomplished at any given moment, and believe that even in the face of division there is much that unites us, especially the urge to improve our own lives and those of our neighbors and fellow community members. They’re very aware of differences of opinion and operate out of a basic sense of decency and fairness. They want the process to reflect fairly where people stand. I think that, without articulating it, they understand instinctively that keeping the process fair is crucial to keeping hope alive.
I have worked in this system a long time, and I believe it can do just that — if it’s allowed to work, and if citizens are allowed to fulfill the basic responsibility of being involved. That’s why the hope of changing things for the better is so crucial. We may face serious, difficult problems, but if we allow ourselves to become discouraged — or even worse, to be discouraged from tackling them — then progress really will be impossible.
Lee Hamilton, 91, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.