Why Politics Needs Hope (But No Longer Inspires It)

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the word ‘hope’ was ubiquitous in Western politics. While its use in the Barack Obama presidential campaign has become iconic, appeal to hope was not limited to the United States: the Leftist Greek Syriza party relied on the slogan ‘hope is on the way’, for example, and many other European parties embraced similar rallying cries. Since then, however, we rarely hear or see ‘hope’ in the public sphere.

Even in its heyday, the rhetoric of hope wasn’t universally popular. When in 2010 the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin rhetorically asked: ‘How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for ya?’ she tapped into a widespread skepticism that views hope as unrealistic, even delusional. Palin’s skepticism (many will be surprised to hear) has long been at work in the philosophical tradition. From Plato to René Descartes, many philosophers have argued that hope is weaker than expectation and confidence since it requires belief merely in the possibility of an event, not evidence that it is likely to occur.

For these philosophers, hope is a second-rate way of relating to reality, appropriate only when a person lacks the requisite knowledge to form ‘proper’ expectations. The radical Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza gives voice to this opinion when he writes that hope indicates ‘a lack of knowledge and a weakness of mind’ and that ‘the more we endeavour to live by the guidance of reason, the more we endeavour to be independent of hope’. According to this view, hope is particularly unsuitable as a guide to political action. Citizens should base their decisions on rational expectations about what governments can achieve, rather than letting themselves be motivated by mere hope.

This skepticism should be taken seriously and can indeed point us toward a better understanding of the rise and fall of the rhetoric of hope. So is there space for hope in politics?

Former President Obama greets children at the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya in 2015. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

We need to be precise about what kind of hope we are talking about. If we are considering what individuals hope for, any policy that has consequences for people’s lives will be tied to hope in some way – whether this is hope for that policy’s success or hope for its failure. The generation of such hope isn’t necessarily good or bad; it is simply a part of political life. But when political movements promise to deliver hope, they are clearly not speaking of hope in this generic sense. This particular rhetoric of hope refers to a more specific, morally attractive and distinctively political form of hope.

Political hope is distinguished by two features. Its object is political: it is hope for social justice. And its character is political: it is a collective attitude. While the significance of the first feature is perhaps obvious, the second feature explains why it makes sense to speak of hope’s ‘return’ to politics. When political movements seek to rekindle hope, they are not acting on the assumption that individual people no longer hope for things – they are building on the idea that hope does not currently shape our collective orientation toward the future. The promise of a ‘politics of hope’ is thus the promise that hope for social justice will become part of the sphere of collective action, of politics itself.

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Even so, the question remains whether political hope is really a good thing. If one of the tasks of government is to realise social justice, would it not be better for political movements to promote justified expectations rather than mere hope? Is the rhetoric of hope not a tacit admission that the movements in question lack strategies for inspiring confidence?

The sphere of politics has particular features, unique to it, that impose limitations on what we can rationally expect. One such limitation is what the American moral philosopher John Rawls in 1993 described as the insurmountable pluralism of ‘comprehensive doctrines’. In modern societies, people disagree about what is ultimately valuable, and these disagreements often cannot be resolved by reasonable argument. Such pluralism makes it unreasonable to expect that we will ever arrive at a final consensus on these matters. To the extent that governments should not pursue ends that cannot be justified to all citizens, the most we can rationally expect from politics is the pursuit of those principles of justice on which all reasonable people can agree, such as basic human rights, non-discrimination, and democratic decision-making. Thus, we cannot rationally expect governments that respect our plurality to pursue more demanding ideals of justice – for example, via ambitious redistributive policies that are not justifiable relative to all, even the most individualistic, conceptions of the good.

This limitation stands in tension with another of Rawls’s claims. He also argued, in 1971, that the most important social good is self-respect. In a liberal society, the citizens’ self-respect is based on the knowledge that there is a public commitment to justice – on the understanding that other citizens view them as deserving fair treatment. However, if we can expect agreement on only a narrow set of ideals, that expectation will make a relatively small contribution to our self-respect. Compared with possible consensus on more demanding ideals of justice, this expectation will do relatively little to make us view other citizens as being deeply committed to justice.

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Fortunately, we need not limit ourselves to what we can expect. Even though we are not justified in expecting more than limited agreement on justice, we can still collectively hope that, in the future, consensus on more demanding ideals of justice will emerge. When citizens collectively entertain this hope, this expresses a shared understanding that each member of society deserves to be included in an ambitious project of justice, even if we disagree about what that project should be. This knowledge can contribute to self-respect and is thus a desirable social good in its own right. In the absence of consensus, political hope is a necessary part of social justice itself.

So it is rational, perhaps even necessary, to recruit the notion of hope for the purposes of justice. And this is why the rhetoric of hope has all but disappeared. We can seriously employ the rhetoric of hope only when we believe that citizens can be brought to develop a shared commitment to exploring ambitious projects of social justice, even when they disagree about their content. This belief has become increasingly implausible in light of recent developments that reveal how divided Western democracies really are. A sizable minority in Europe and the US has made it clear, in response to the rhetoric of hope, that it disagrees not only about the meaning of justice but also with the very idea that our current vocabulary of social justice ought to be extended. One can, of course, still individually hope that those who hold this view will be convinced to change it. As things stand, however, this is not a hope that they are able to share.


This feature is written by Titus Stahl & originally appeared in Aeon.



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