The Political Work and Experience of Hoping with Others

Back to Spring 2024: Volume 113, Number 1

By Antonin Lacelle-Webster

What motivates people to take part in collective projects? How can they sustain their political engagement amidst setbacks or losses? Democratic politics, broadly understood, is the transformative domain of social life in which people engage in and organize collective action to achieve common goals and make collective decisions. As these interactions are characterized by uncertainty and unpredictability, their projections into possible futures are oriented and moved by experiences of hope (and fear).

Political actors and social movements alike often rely on hope and its openness to mobilize people and provide a contrast to politics of fear, as shown by slogans such as “hope versus fear,” “change we can believe in,” or “hope is on the way.” In the United States, this politics of hope has often been associated with political figures such as Barack Obama, Harvey Milk, Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King Jr. While there is a vagueness and ambiguity associated with such appeals, I argue in this essay that there is something inherently political to the work and experience of hope. The organization of democratic politics can enable (or hinder) the collective conditions by which shared experiences of hope can move politics, in turn, these experiences can help sustain (or undermine) democratic politics.

Locating hope and its different experiences

Talking, organizing, voting, and working with one another are key to our capacity to imagine, decide on, and move toward possible collective futures in democratic politics. This future-regarding motion relies on a sense of agency that stands uneasily between constraints and possibilities. The constant negotiation this tension suggests is not a flaw but rather a feature of the experience of hope. Combining a desire for something, a belief in its possibility, and a generally positive outlook, appeals to hope in politics are multiple yet vulnerable when lacking empirical groundings. What does it mean to have hope? Hope in what? Hope in whom? Hope for what? Hope for whom? Rather than approaching hope as a uniform phenomenon, these multiple constraints and possibilities suggest differentiated experiences that each moves politics in distinct ways.

I will attempt to distinguish some of these experiences of hope by drawing on Harvey Milk’s “The Hope Speech” and illustrate the political implications behind its individual and collective manifestations and the kind of work both require. Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on November 8, 1977, and assassinated on November 27, 1978, alongside San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, by a former city supervisor, Dan White. He was the first openly gay man elected to political office in California. “The Hope Speech” was one of Milk’s stump speeches and went through many iterations throughout his political career. Beyond the rhetoric, this speech is relevant as it puts forward two contrasting accounts of hope while elevating at the same time its importance in navigating political life. Without arguing that these accounts are mutually exclusive, I believe that their experiences enable distinct political actions that ask different things from politics.

The first of these two accounts is found within individuals. In discussing the unfolding of homophobic political campaigns in the 1970s and the killing of a gay man in San Francisco, Milk talks about the intrinsic value of hope in a time of crisis and its instrumentality in resisting despair,

I can’t forget the looks on the faces of people who’ve lost hope […] I walked among the sad and the frustrated at City Hall in San Francisco and later that night as they lit candles on Castro Street and stood in silence, reaching out for some symbolic thing that would give them hope. These were strong people whose faces I knew from the shop, the streets, meetings, and people who I never saw before, but I knew. They were strong, but even they needed hope.

Hope is presented here as a response that helps navigate moments of fear and pain. This response, however, is reflective and contingent on one’s positionality, lived experiences, and beliefs. While Milk mentions that “strong people” were walking on Castro Street and standing together, hope (or the search for it) is an intrinsically private phenomenon. Individuals are looking for something that “would give them hope.” This characterization does not deny that others might be involved or present as one is looking for hope. Still, the work it implies is not dependent on them and can be done, theoretically, in isolation. These “strong people” might find it in similar places, things, or symbols, but their hope remains filtered by their own senses and independent from the presence of others. I call this account hoping alongside others.

In contrast to this private account, the speech hints at a hope grounded between individuals and contingent on their interactions with others. The following passage illustrates what I call hoping with others,

The only thing they [young gay people] have to look forward to is hope. And you [the gay community] have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up.

This form of hope is bonded to the actions and meanings people develop together and the spaces they create between them. The experience of being with others holds open a space in which people define a collective horizon and act in concert with others toward it. This work grounds a particular experience of hope that cannot be experienced in isolation or understood independently from the collective. As such, the notion that “all will be alright” does not speak to a belief in the inevitability of progress or the comfort one could find outside the collective. Instead, the reference to “all will be alright” is only meaningful when understood in relation to the presence of an organized community that creates a space where people can see one another and project themselves into possible futures.

In sum, the speech shows how hope can be woven into political life – whether as a longing for comfort in the face of loss or a particular experience emerging between people. Each has value in democratic politics and contributes to moving political agency in distinct ways. However, in the remainder of this essay, I want to focus on what the latter can teach us about the organization of collective capacities and what it requires from politics. Consequently, I suggest that it matters to shift our attention from hoping alongside others to hoping with others and the conditions enabling its work and experience in a time of crisis and social anxiety.

Enabling the work and experience of hoping with others

Far from being an abstract phenomenon, hope speaks to the uncertain, collective, and future-oriented features of democratic politics. Discerning how it can contribute to a collective orientation that can support democratic politics is a tangible political problem. Although hope can be empowering, it can also be complacent, vague, and fleeting as its experience can help sustain rather than challenge power structures in ways that evoke what Lauren Berlant famously called “cruel optimism.”1 Given the broader fatigue with promises for social and political progress, many are questioning the political relevancy of hope and its contribution to politics and social change. Concerns about its perceived naïveté, its disconnection from the “reality” of politics, the false illusions it carries, and its capacity to sustain rather than challenge structures of domination and oppression all contribute to a broader skepticism about the language of hope. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear climate activists oppose hope to the urgency of the moment and the necessary actions it implies. While these concerns are not new and emerge from a long tradition, they are insightful and show the importance of keeping in mind how the organization of politics can shape the work and experience of hope. In other words, what political conditions can enable the necessary reflexive and collective work that hoping with others requires?

In exploring hope in relation to democratic politics, I turn to an unlikely figure: the political theorist Hannah Arendt. Arendt is not usually understood as a hopeful thinker as she rejected a politics of hope throughout her work. For instance, she warns in Men in Dark Times that under dire circumstances, there is a strong temptation to “shift from the world and its public space […]| in favor of an imaginary world ‘as it ought to be’ or as it once upon a time had been.”2 This example, among other remarks, is evocative of a conception of hope that tends to induce a false sense of comfort by turning away from the world people share with others. I argue, however, that Arendt’s account of politics allows for a more nuanced – and, ultimately, political – portrait of hope. Following how she thinks with and against hope is about recognizing the fragility of the common world and the sense of possibility vested in worldly projects and interests.

This connection embraces the vulnerabilities and contingencies of politics. Joining this understanding with the insights derived from Milk’s “Hope Speech” helps identify three interrelated dimensions that, taken together, can help situate the collective work and experience of hope and the more active forms of participation and engagement in civic life it requires.3 Without seeking to provide an overarching defence of hope, this approach helps identify a collective experience that contributes to navigating the uncertainty of politics and its future-making activities.

The first dimension relates to the experience of being with others that Milk evoked when discussing what the “gay community” can do for “young gay people.” By engaging with others, new meanings and possibilities are constantly created and integrated into a collective experience of the world. This experience requires public spaces where people can be seen and see others in ways that allow the contours of the collective to be defined, reasserted, and re-constituted. As such, this point hints at the open-endedness of politics and the difficulty (if not impossibility) of predicting all possible outcomes. This openness requires cultivating and holding open these spaces that allow a plurality of perspectives to contribute to defining paths forward, engaging with previous understandings and positions, or approaching events from a new angle.

The second dimension points to the uncertainty of action. On the one hand, being with others is an uncertain experience in which one cannot know what others will do and how they will act. On the other hand, being with others also implies recognizing our own limits in bringing about desired outcomes and the need for concerted actions. This uncertainty elevates the active role that community members need to take to ground this sense of possibility and a reliance on discursive and reflexive practices that enable the necessary coordination between people. Hoping with others is not done in the abstract. It requires time and active engagement from members of the community to co-constitute shared political horizons. This work is not about aggregating individual hopes but transcending subjective experiences and co-constituting shared understandings. The language they develop collectively to make sense of the world and imagine possible futures guides the actions they undertake, which, in turn, create new conditions that update what they understand as being possible in the first place.

Lastly, the collective experience of hope is contingent on the presence of others in order, as Milk says, to avoid that the “us’es will give up.” Amidst the uncertainty and unpredictability of politics, the collective character of this specific experience suggests a reliance on promise-making and the moments of stability it can bring. I understand promise-making as referring to the degree to which members of a group agree to act with one another in a specific way. This connection allows them to project their collective agency across time and space. However, the promises that hold groups or movements together do not imply permanence. Given that they change and transform themselves constantly, the temporal nature of these political engagements suggests that they can and should be renegotiated. This dimension elevates the processes by which constituencies are created and how they understand themselves and their roles in relation to others and the broader environment in which they are embedded.

Political implications

Considering the risks and possibilities hope presents to politics, how it is experienced and structured must be considered seriously. Democracy relies on people engaging with others to collectively pursue and define goals and shape possible futures. The uncertain, collective, and future-regarding features of its practice rely on a sustained sense of agency and possibility across time and space. From that standpoint, hope provides interesting resources. However, it entails different iterations that can co-exist with one another and move politics in ways that either support or hinder democracy. What kind of futures are being put forward? Who defines them? Who is not? How politics is being organized provides different answers to these questions and, accordingly, to the parallel question of whose hope is being considered.

Given its groundings between people, hoping with others captures a particular experience of hope reliant on the work of co-creating the necessary language through which people can imagine, conceive, and act toward collectively constituted possibilities. Against the growing sense that established political institutions and processes are limited in their capacity to engage with and address collective and future problems, the work of practitioners, activists, community organizers, citizens, and scholars aimed at developing ways to reform (or transform) existing institutions and processes and open alternative spaces contributes to mobilizing this particular experience of hope.

Empowering new constituencies, developing alternative sites of politics, and re-shaping relationships with public powers provide examples that allow people to recover imagination in politics and maintain a renewed sense of possibility. While hope in the abstract can be dangerous for political action, shifting our focus on the political conditions and the creative energy behind its collective work and experience provide an alternative that grounds it in the contingencies of politics. While I am not arguing about linking hope to any specific arrangements, the features of its collective articulation provide resources to understand its contribution to politics and help navigate the uncertainty of politics.

What is the point of politics without hope? On the one hand, hope might be perceived as a coping mechanism that makes abstraction of the world and its constraints. On the other hand, it can suggest an act of resistance grounded in action. The ambiguity that these differences highlight is not trivial. However, it reveals the very human way by which people deal with uncertainty. While hope brings about normative and ethical questions, I suggest in this essay that turning to its collective experience points to a practical concern with the organization of politics. Against the increasing uncertainty and unpredictability of contemporary democratic politics and the exhaustion many are feeling, I argue that maintaining hope is a collective burden. Recovering the conditions that enable its work and experience is, nevertheless, key in resisting fatalism and its undermining effect on collective action.

This article is modified version of a paper that was originally published in the European Journal of Political Theory, “Democratic politics and hope: An Arendtian perspective”, 2023.

Antonin Lacelle-Webster is a postdoctoral associate at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University

1 Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.
2 Arendt, Hannah. [1968] 1995. Men in Dark Times. New York: Harvest Book, p. 19.
3 I originally defined these three dimensions by drawing on Arendt’s notions of natality, action, and promises (see Lacelle-Webster, 2023).

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