November 3, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Win or lose, I’m hopeful
Nothing can stop the progress we've seen.
During class Monday, one of my Wesleyan students said I sounded pessimistic. We were gaming out a variety of outcomes that might arise from today’s election. I guess I was focusing too much on the negative—too much on the president’s crazy-making—because she said, “It sounds like you’re not hopeful about Biden’s chances of winning.”
It was a teachable moment. For me. Maybe for you, too.
I have spent over the last four years a lot of time talking about bad things. I have done that, I suppose, because most Americans—most white Americans, to be very specific—have an unthinking faith in the republic. They have the privilege of standing aside instead of participating in politics. Too many white Americans think of themselves exclusively as sports fans, professionals or wypipo. Too few see themselves inclusively as citizens. Amid so much spectating, the fascists stepped right in. The solution is for a sovereign citizenry to stop watching and start fighting for the country it wants to see.
I have faith in a sovereign citizenry that now understands that it can’t, and that it won’t, stand aside and merely watch.
In this sense, I’m hopeful. Donald Trump’s election has activated white Americans morally in ways I have not seen in my lifetime. During the Obama years, they could tell themselves they helped redeem America by electing the first Black president. During those eight years in Black power, white Americans did not quite believe Black Lives Matters. How bad could it be? Obama’s president. Then came Trump. Then came George Floyd. Then came the covid. In just four years—in just the past nine months of the pandemic—most white Americans have come to see we can’t live as we have been. Rugged individualism is now a lethal fetish. To survive, we must be in this together.
In these four years, we have seen a widening divide within liberalism. On the one hand is the old school of neutrality. On the other is the new school of equality. Here’s how the late philosopher Ronald Dworkin put it in 1983. The first “takes as fundamental the idea that government must not take sides on moral issues, and it supports only such egalitarian measures as can be shown to be the result of that principle. Liberalism based on equality takes as fundamental that government treat its citizens as equals, and insists on moral neutrality only to the degree that equality requires it” (italics mine).
Here’s the tip jar! Put something nice in it!
The neutral kind was preferable among white liberals during the Cold War. It shielded them against right-wing accusations of Big-C Communism whenever they used the government to solve social problems. It continued to be preferable after Ronald Reagan’s back-to-back landslide victories. It was OK to be a liberal in a sea of conservatism as long as one’s liberalism was more or less in line with the prevailing ideology, that is to say, as long as it focused on individual freedom from government.
The problem, of course, was that commitments to neutrality meant liberals had no moral answer to the conservative project of starving the government so that it could not be used to address social problems. The only useful answer to the conservative moral argument against government was a liberal moral argument for it. For the most part, most white liberals, over the last four decades, chose to stand aside and spectate.
Black liberals, however, did no such thing. They knew, as their intellectual forebears knew, that true equality, and therefore true freedom, would never come without a moral argument as robust as the enemy’s. Since the enemy always cast doubt on whether Black lives matter, anything short of a moral argument was complicity in one’s oppression. Liberals Black and white had common goals during the last quarter of the 20th century but there was always tension between the need for neutrality and the demand for equality. With the turning of the generations, equality eventually overtook neutrality among white mainstream liberals. Now, as Reagan’s conservative regime devolved into fascism, the only liberals left insisting on neutrality are the signatories of letters published in Harper’s demanding the right not to be criticized.
Like most people paying careful attention to politics, I expect Joe Biden to win. I think, moreover, that his victory will be unambiguous. It may not be clear today. That may take a few days. But I think that’s where we’re headed. (May God make it so.)
But even if Biden loses, even if Trump steals this election, becoming the first president in American history to lose the popular vote in back-to-back elections, ushering in what I fear will be a period of permanent political violence and death by covid, I will still be hopeful. I have faith in the American people. I have faith in a citizenry that understands that it can’t, and that it won’t, stand aside. It may lose, but not for long.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.