Opinion guest column

Hope as a political engine

Electing a mindset

The American democratic experiment now finds itself at a crossroads. Our country is the most divided it’s been in modern history. Fear and accusation dominate electoral rhetoric. In these trying times, we the people must rekindle the driving force behind America’s success: hope.

It’s forgivable to think that there is more of a reason than ever to fear. The rise of the so-called Islamic State, rising income inequality, and economic uncertainty understandably stoke fear. Hope, however, boasts an impressive résumé.

Barack Obama’s presidency offers a recent example. Elected on a banner of “hope and change,” he admittedly under-delivered on many campaign promises. Politics as usual reigns in Washington, Guantanamo Bay remains open, and comprehensive immigration reform remains but a dream. But he has certainly delivered: he brought American combat troops out of Iraq, stymied Iran’s path to nuclear weapon without firing a single shot, and passed his signature Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) to reform the American healthcare system. Given of the decades of presidents who tried and failed to reform the American healthcare system, Obamacare is certainly a testament to the power of hope to effect change

While Obama’s message of hope and change disappointed the impossibly-high expectations it shouldered, that message nevertheless produced great progress. Our nation and world remain far from perfect, but hope continues to drive improvement.

Looking back further, the grueling but ultimately successful women’s suffrage movement confirms the power of unrelenting hope. Voteless suffragists lobbied indefatigably for their right to vote for 80 years, from 1840 until the 1920 passage of the 19th amendment. To put that in perspective, the last 80 years have witnessed World War II, the Cold War, the Apollo space missions, the formation of the UN and EU, the September 11 attacks, and America’s first black president. That’s a long time to battle for your rights.

After the triumphant conclusion of the campaign, the renowned suffragist activist Carrie Chapman Catt reflected, “How much of time and patience, how much work, energy and aspiration, how much faith, how much hope, how much despair went into it.” Hope deferred may ferment into despair, but even then it drives American progress.

In fact, America owes its very existence to the power of hope. In 1763, the British Empire had just cemented itself as the world’s dominant military power by winning the Seven Years’ War. The fiery patriot Patrick Henry conceded that “they tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary” but concluded with the ultimatum, “give me liberty or give me death!”

Like all the other founding fathers, Henry staked his very life on the hope of establishing a more just society. Hope has always been at the core of American progress. While the holders of that hope were flawed – the founding fathers conspicuously ignored the rights of women in the Declaration of Independence, Catt’s arguments for women’s suffrage sometimes appealed to notions of white supremacy, and Obama’s record can be judged by the reader – the hope they harbored produced historic milestones of American progress.

Hope may produce temporary disappointment, but it was and is and will continue to be our most powerful engine for progress. We must cherish the hope that we have inherited and jealously guard it as we navigate new frontiers of technology and uncertainty.

We must not allow the mendacity of fear to trump the audacity of hope.

Shenghao Wang is an alumnus in the MIT Class of 2016.