13 Bright Spots and Optimistic Thinkers Challenge the Dark Future of Trump
We all recognize the darkness that has descended upon us as the Trump administration reveals its reactionary intentions, levels of corruption and destructive and chaotic approach to governing. Some people are feeling apocalyptic about the future, as we have covered.
It is easy to get depressed and discouraged by everything that is happening. It's tempting to embrace a "glass half empty" world view. But it is vital for progressives to look beyond the shadows of Donald Trump, into our past and present achievements, to spur on future progress and keep hope alive.
In the interest of looking for positive visions of the future, what follows are 13 visions that while reality-based, do not succumb to our darkest impulses. Instead, these writers and figures articulate visions and paths to a better future—even though the path forward may be arduous.
I don’t think things are quite that bleak. Take the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the most remarkable feature of the 2016 election. It is, after all, not all that surprising that a billionaire showman with extensive media backing (including the liberal media, entranced by his antics and the advertising revenue it afforded) should win the nomination of the ultra-reactionary Republican Party.
The Sanders campaign, however, broke dramatically with over a century of U.S. political history. Extensive political science research, notably the work of Thomas Ferguson, has shown convincingly that elections are pretty much bought. For example, campaign spending alone is a remarkably good predictor of electoral success, and support of corporate power and private wealth is a virtual prerequisite even for participation in the political arena.
The Sanders campaign showed that a candidate with mildly progressive (basically New Deal) programs could win the nomination, maybe the election, even without the backing of the major funders or any media support. There’s good reason to suppose that Sanders would have won the nomination had it not been for shenanigans of the Obama-Clinton party managers. He is now the most popular political figure in the country by a large margin.
The left-wing almost-wins of the past two years are painful, but they are not defeats. They are the first tremors of a profound ideological realignment from which a progressive majority could well emerge—just as geopolitically significant as the rise of authoritarianism and neofascism on the right side of the spectrum. Indeed, the weaknesses and missteps of these left candidates should be a cause not for despair but for genuine hope. It means that a much larger political tent is possible—it’s just a matter of collectively, and carefully, planting the right poles from day one. As many movement leaders are now arguing, a very good start would be accepting the premise that widening economic inequality and climate disaster are inseparable from systems that have always ranked human life based on race and gender, while the capacity to pit populations against each other based on skin color, religious faith, and sexuality has been the single most potent tool for protecting and sustaining this lethal order. And if the political formation that has the guts to say all that also has a bold plan for humanizing and democratizing new technologies and global trade, then it would quickly seize back populist ground from the right, while feeling less like a blast from the past and more like a path to an exciting, never-before-attempted future. A deeply diverse and insistently forward-looking campaign like that could well prove unbeatable.
[I]n the wake of this terrible election, much of my hope has rested not on what could or should happen, and not what the historical record tells us has happened, but what is happening now. There is another America rising and taking action, and it is beautiful. I’m thinking of the many stories of people standing up for the vulnerable, directly when they intervene in confrontations with haters. Or indirectly, as with the young woman I know who co-organised the creation of Neveragain.tech, a public oath people working in tech can take to refuse to create Muslim registries, turn over people’s private data, or otherwise cooperate with state persecution.
Of the California state senate, which immediately after the election issued a manifesto of defiance: “California will defend its people and our progress. We are not going to allow one election to reverse generations of progress at the height of our historic diversity, scientific advancement, economic output, and sense of global responsibility. We will lead the resistance to any effort that would shred our social fabric or our constitution.”
...Many people are still trying to figure out what to do; others are doing it. They give me hope, in some portion of humanity, the portion that will resist Trump and defend our ideals.
[F]ears that Trump will set back the left’s agenda dangerously and irreparably are not well founded. Core advances can’t be undone. Although Trump could do some real temporary damage, he and his movement will fade, and the values and priorities of the left will eventually triumph.
Consider social equality and tolerance, where some of today’s greatest fears are concentrated. ... [P]eople should not lose sight of the massive progress in the past half-century, led by the left. This includes the destruction of formal and many normative barriers to racial equality, the rise of the black middle class, the advancement of women in higher education and the professions, the dominance of anti-sexist views in public opinion, and the acceptance of gays, including the institution of same-sex marriage. We still have far to go in the attainment of full social equality, but it is also true that we have gone far.
Public-opinion data is quite clear that the United States has become more, not less liberal in all these areas over time and that these trends are continuing. Take the standard question about whether immigration levels should increase, decrease or stay the same. The 38 percent of people who say “decrease” is about as low as it ever has been since Gallup started tracking the question in the 1960s. The current number represents a massive drop, of about 30 points, since the early 1990s, when Pat Buchanan first raised his pitchfork high at the Republican National Convention. There has also been a considerable change in views about whether immigration is a good or bad thing for America—and it’s positive, not negative, change, even if one confines the data to white Americans. According to Gallup, the “good thing” response by whites was as low as 51 percent in the early 2000s but has been around 70 percent in the past two years.
...So the idea that Trump will somehow successfully relitigate the role of immigrants, minorities, gays and women in American society is scary but absurd. ... [Trump] will ultimately fail, because what he wishes to do is both massively unpopular and runs against the grain of legal precedent and institutional norms.
[T]his is a time to celebrate. The water protectors won a huge victory with the Corps of Engineers decision—a victory that benefits not only the Sioux tribes, not only those along the Missouri River, but everyone. We all drink water and need a stable climate. As we navigate what may be the most dangerous time in human history, the lessons from Standing Rock can guide us. As we create a post-fossil fuel society, we can take the lessons of respect and nonviolence, of valuing life over money, of learning from the indigenous peoples as cornerstones. A revolution in values and culture is rippling out across the country and the world, and it started at Standing Rock.
If you need an injection of positivity to fuel your optimist fire, check out this good news, and then go make some of your own:
Reason #1: Donations to activist organizations have spiked higher than ever.
Reason #2: Solar power is now cheaper than coal, gas, and oil.
Reason #4: New discoveries in epigenetics show that it’s much easier to change our DNA, through even our thoughts, than scientists previously realized.
Reason #5: We’re actually living in the most peaceful era since the existence of our species.
Reason #6: The kids are all right. Young people are coming up with brilliant solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems.
Reason #7: Not all billionaires are bad. Some are actually doing incredible things to change the world.
Reason #8: Vertical forests will soon suck pollution out of smog-filled cities in China and beyond.
Reason #10: Thanks to the internet, social media and rapid advancements in technology, we can reach and help people around the world more quickly and effectively than ever before.
"There’s a lot wrong with the media, the major media... the New York Times, CBS, the Washington Post. Plenty wrong with them," [Noam Chomsky] concedes.
"[But] I think they’re a lot better than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Part of the reason is that society has just become more civilized. ... For example, take the two basic crimes of American history—the near extermination of its indigenous population and slavery. Back in the 1960s, these weren’t particularly regarded as crimes. What they were saying about indigenous populations in the United States—not just the United States, the whole continent—was that the hunter-gatherers straggling around never possessed the land. And so it didn’t mean anything to take it away from them," he explained. "That is no longer true."
"The false history has been very significantly overcome. It’s now possible for not just scholars, but high school students to learn a good deal of what really happened," Chomsky added.
8. Barack Obama
The Paris agreement, even with the temporary absence of U.S. leadership, will still be a critical factor in helping our children solve the enormous challenge in civilization. ... Even in the absence of American leadership; even as this [Trump] administration joins a small handful of nations that reject the future; I’m confident that our states, cities, and businesses will step up and do even more to lead the way, and help protect for future generations the one planet we’ve got.
It’s easy to feel pessimistic about the health of the world’s population. Growing antibiotic resistance, the dramatic rise in obesity related diseases and problems associated with an ageing population are all cause for concern.
But how about the diseases that mankind is winning the fight against? The truth is, we are on the brink of eradicating a string of deadly diseases that were, until recently, affecting millions of people.
It has been 35 years since the World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been eradicated. Now there are hopes that similar declarations will be made about a number of other killer diseases in the coming years. [Breene goes on to list Guinea worm, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, lymphatic filariasis, and river blindness.]
Julia Belluz: You wrote a very optimistic book about the trend toward less violence on earth. But it feels like we’ve seen a lot of violence here in the U.S. since then. ... How do you put all this in context?
Steven Pinker: News is a misleading way to understand the world. It’s always about events that happened and not about things that didn’t happen. So when there’s a police officer that has not been shot up or city that has not had a violent demonstration, they don’t make the news. As long as violent events don’t fall to zero, there will be always be headlines to click on. The data show—since The Better Angels of Our Nature was published—rates of violence continue to go down.
Are we living through an era that resembles the 1930s, when authoritarian leaders were on the march, democratic leaders failed to stand up to them, the international system buckled, and the world was dragged into war? Or are we living through something more like the late 1970s, when America, recovering from its long engagement in a losing war and pulling itself out of a prolonged economic slump, began to take the course corrections that allowed it to embark on a period of national recovery and reassert its international ascendancy?
...[The] somewhat more optimistic analogy... holds that the present situation is more like the 1970s—another period in which U.S. leadership and the international order were sharply tested. In this comparison, the United States is again in a funk, with wavering enthusiasm for internationalism at home and major geopolitical and geoeconomic challenges abroad. But, despite such worrying developments, long-range trends are on America’s side, and U.S. power and activism will rebound, just as they did during the late 1970s and 1980s.
For decades the “Philadelphia Story” was about steady economic decline. That story is being rewritten today as many Americans rediscover the advantages of cities—inviting public spaces, rich cultural diversity and a creative environment that fertilizes start-ups and attracts talent.
Young people, in particular, have moved here in droves, realizing they can enjoy the same kind of urban amenities as New York, Washington or Boston. New Americans immigrating from other nations also contribute to the city’s growth. But so far Philadelphia’s comeback is limited to certain parts of town. “We have one of the highest infusions of millennials coming here, but also some of the highest rates of poverty and economic segregation,” observes Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell.
Refusing to accept these disparities as inevitable, local leaders formed the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative three years ago to show how growing prosperity can be spread more widely throughout town—a strategy now being applied in Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Akron.
Philadelphia’s early efforts show promise that urban revitalization does not inevitably translate to dislocation, in which lower-income people are shoved away when neighborhoods bounce back economically. The stark boundaries—rich vs. poor, black and brown vs. white—begin to break down as people share parks, trails, libraries, nature centers and other gathering places.
Philadephia’s Civic Commons campaign began as a partnership among two foundations—William Penn and Knight—working with non-profit organizations, city staff and citizens to improve public assets like parks and libraries. The idea is that strengthening these civic commons—which means places belonging to everyone—can lay groundwork for economic and social opportunity in surrounding neighborhoods.
Every now and then I fall into near despair about what is happening in our nation. But from some unexpected source there is extended a friendly hand and I am yanked back to the reality that reminds me I live in a caring place with gracious neighbors.
I do not wear rose-colored glasses, and have never been accused of being just another optimistic liberal, unaware that the world can be cruel, ruled by selfish tyrants and dominated by hogs only interested in getting to the trough before anyone else. I guess I know and have seen the dark side of who we are as a people, darker these days than it has been in my lifetime. But the moments of common, gracious, human kindness I have encountered time and time again keep me optimistic about who we are—a people who really care about each other.