A lack of hope can lead to nihilistic, anti-social, self-destructive behavior. Politically, the absence of hope is reflected in a loss of faith in representative democracy, a despair that social circumstances can’t be changed through collective action. Hopelessness becomes self-defeating: In the 2000 presidential election, 65 percent of eligible voters who were unemployed did not vote. Enough votes were left uncast to open the door for George W. Bush, who opposed an extension of benefits to the long-term unemployed.
The right’s attacks on “big government” and its tax-dollar wasting follies set up government institutions as the enemy of the people, thus fostering the alienation summed up in the phrase “You can’t fight city hall.”
What saps hope?
The role of money in politics, which rightly leads people to perceive elected officials as agents for the rich, feeds this disconnect between citizens and representative government. A study by Public Campaign found that in the 2000 and 2002 federal elections, a ZIP code on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, 10021, contributed the most money to federal candidates—$28.4 million. That one ZIP code, which is 86 percent white, paid out more money to federal candidates than the 532 ZIP codes with the largest percentage of African-American residents and the 533 ZIP codes with the largest percentage of Latino residents.
The gerrymandering of congressional districts to deny nonwhite people representation in Congress further dampens people’s faith in their own political agency. In Texas, for example, Republicans under the guidance of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay drew up a congressional map that changed the current 17-15 Democratic majority in the Texas congressional delegation to one with a 22-10 Republican majority. As Delay political aide Jim Ellis wrote in a memo released by Texas Democrats: “We must stress that a map that returns [Democratic U.S. Reps. Martin] Frost, [Chet] Edwards and [Lloyd] Doggett is unacceptable and not worth all the time invested in this project.”
The establishment media, which attempt to set the boundaries of acceptable thought and define what is politically important, exacerbate voter despair by turning politics into a sporting event. At a recent Democratic candidates debate, Dennis Kucinich scolded moderator Ted Koppel for failing to ask substantive questions of the candidates. Kucinich said:
Ted, I want the American people to see where the media takes politics in this country. We start talking about endorsements, now we’re talking about polls, and then we’re talking about money. Well, you know, when you do that, you don’t have to talk about what’s important to the American people.And it is important for American people to have hope. One way is to work for a world we all deserve. In 2004 and in the years ahead, progressives should:
- Ensure the defeat of President George W. Bush.
- Mobilize behind the Democratic candidate by building political structures that survive, and thrive, beyond November 2004.
- Back Public Campaign’s plan to institute campaign finance reform through a voluntary system of public financing, which has been passed in six states and continues to make progress at taking money out of politics.
- Devise ways to scrap our winner-take-all electoral system and replace it with a more democratic system of proportional representation, as championed by the Center for Voting and Democracy.
- Support and build independent media institutions that challenge the smug righteousness of the likes of Ted Koppel, that perform a civic duty by engaging citizens with each other and their community, and that, in the words of In These Times mission statement, oppose “the tyranny of marketplace values over human values.”
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.