Rekindling Hope: Going from “I Guess We Can…?” Back to “Yes We Can”

On optimism, before and after the 2018 midterm elections.

Election Day — I Like My Wit Caustic and My Optimism Cautious

Liberals took a lot of things for granted under President Barack Obama, perhaps nothing more than the optimism his administration engendered in us.

With the first black president, anything felt possible, and he encouraged that sentiment. His election 10 years ago was rife with slogans stoking not fear and hate, as Trump has successfully done, but concepts that seem almost foreign now, like “Hope” and “Change.” And not just any old change, but “Change We Can Believe In.” Even if he sometimes ended independent clauses in a preposition, Obama led us libtards to believe that “Yes We Can.” But going into the midterm elections, our general spirit feels more like, “I guess we can?” or “God, I hope we can…” or “We fucking better or I. Will. LOSE IT, CAROL!”

 

It’s pretty obvious where our optimism went. It died a painful death in 2016, when what we thought would be another step in the right direction ended up being a stumble followed by a fall followed by a plunge down a bottomless well. The biggest internet troll on the planet is the commander-in-chief and his spineless and miserable excuse for a political party refuses to check his ego or his bigotry, leading to disastrous consequences for not just the most vulnerable among us, but inevitably all of us. Hope and change-we-can-believe-in have since been brutally attacked by a tiki-torch-wielding nationalism we’re expected to greet as patriotism.

Even if it seems, and is true, that a significant majority of the country is O-V-E-R Trump’s divisive shenanigans—even Trump’s very own state-run propaganda machine, Fox News, places his disapproval ratings over 50%—America’s most imperfect union makes it easy for the government to turn a deaf ear to the will of the people. After all, and never let Trump forget it, Hillary won the popular vote.

Noted well-meaning white woman Sarah Silverman summarized how misrepresentative our representative democracy really is in a recent segment of her political satire show, I Love You, America:

 

So yeah, the 10 least populous states with their 9.3 million people get more representation in Congress than the 10.1 million people in Los Angeles County. Meanwhile, according to Gallup, the amount of people who identify as Democrat and Republican are about equal, though the majority identifies as Independent—leaving 2020 open for a much-needed third party candidate to swoop in and really snatch some Whigs. #CmonWhigs2020

The reality of this post-2016 situation we’ve found ourselves in—that the country isn’t as progressive as we might have thought, that there is a long history here fraught with injustice and inequity, that maybe we’re actually not all in this together, and that maybe we don’t all believe in the same change—has resulted not in a lack of optimism, but rather a cautious kind, which in itself makes me optimistic.

Optimism would be completely lost if it was tied solely to one person. If hope and change began and ended with Barack Obama, there would be no “#Resistance.” There wouldn’t be a record number of women, people of color, and queer people running for office, nor would there be a record number of youth voters turning out for the ugly stepsister of the democratic process, the midterm elections. Obama simply tapped into a need that was always there, just as his successor tapped into an anger and resentment that was always there. Both men will be outlived by their contributions, for better and for worse.

Regardless of the outcome, my greatest hope is that we don’t lose this enthusiasm to take part in government and that people will see how important midterm elections are. They’re more important than presidential elections because they actually affect your everyday life. And because these elections are more localized, every vote really does count, despite what the last two years have tried to convince us.

 

Post-Election Day — It’s Our House and We Live Here

I woke up feeling sobered but invigorated—basically the opposite of how I usually wake up. Hopes of a sweeping referendum on the guaranteed worst president you’ll have in your lifetime fell short with the Republicans actually picking up a few more seats in the Senate and progressive hopefuls Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum, and (likely) Stacey Abrams coming up short in their races. But the big picture is looking a lot more…what’s that word again? Optimistic.

The Democrats finally won something: the House of Representatives, where they picked up 29 seats. The Dems also won the popular vote by almost nine points, a greater margin than other alleged midterm waves, even the particularly disastrous one of 2010. Of all the prognostic sobriquets bandied about concerning the midterms, “The Year of the Woman” seems to be the most apt. Over 100 women were elected last night, including 96 women to the House, 12 women to the Senate, and nine women as governor. Among the many firsts they racked up: Kansas’s Sharice Davids and New Mexico’s Debra Haaland became the first Native American women elected to Congress; Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar became the first Muslim congresswomen; and 29-year-old bold-lip proponent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, hailing from the Boogie Down Bronx, became the youngest women ever elected to Congress.

Don Emmert / Getty

The so-called “Rainbow Wave” also proved a thing, even though I’m annoyed Vermont neglected to elect Christine Hallquist as the first transgender governor in American history. But elsewhere, the news was more heartening. Massachusetts said “YAS” to Question 3, a ballot measure upholding the state’s protections for transgender rights. With his win in Colorado, Jared Polis will become the country’s first openly gay male governor, while the first openly LGBTQ governor, Oregon’s Kate Brown (who is bi), successfully defended her seat; Wisconsin trailblazer Tammy Baldwin will continue as the first and only openly gay Senator. And Davids, who is a lesbian, became her state’s first out member of Congress. Of the 225 LGBTQ candidates the Victory Fund endorsed for the midterms, 128 won their races. Turns out that rainbow over the Capitol was a good omen, after all.

Of course, disappointments were inevitable. And of course they would be delivered by the answer to “What if disappointment was a state?”: Florida. The Sunshine State succumbed, though just barely, to Donald Trump’s sunburnt racism, as espoused by his surrogate, Ron DeSantis. Current governor/generally awful Rick Scott claimed victory over Democrat Bill Nelson, but in the grand panhandle tradition, it will most likely head to a recount. But even in the cantankerous canker sore that is Florida there was a silver lining: Floridians passed the ballot measure Amendment 4 restoring the voting rights to some 1.5 million people who had served their time after being convicted of felonies. That means 1.5 million people, all of them denied their basic civil right by their once governor and future senator Rick Scott, now have the power to vote him the fuck out.

Many of the Senate seats and governorships the Republicans won they won by thin margins, or in regions located deep within Trump country—where truth is like brown people: inconvenient and best left ignored. But the teflon demagogue’s hold on that part of America and its outsize influence on the rest of us is slipping and this midterm is a watershed moment in its gradual erosion. A wave must build before it slams into your body and drowns you in a sea of good intentions. Still, the most important takeaway from all of this is that Trump and the Republicans finally have a check on their previously unchecked power—not that they got anything done with it, but whatever. The Dems can now Dikembe Mutombo Trump’s legislative agenda.

I want Nancy Pelosi answering any and all phone calls from Mitch McConnell like President Claire Hale Underwood in the (admittedly not great) final season of House of Cards:

I want Kamala Harris revealing Trump’s tax returns like—

I want Maxine Waters reclaiming everyone’s goddamn time.

This may not have been the decisive referendum on Trump we’d hoped for, but we’re starting to dig ourselves out of that bottomless well of despair and heading back in the right direction. The seeds of progress have been planted, or rather, replanted, repotted, and resoiled. The electorate is getting younger and more diverse, the elected are getting less white and less male, and hey, even the ozone layer is making a comeback and I thought that bitch was a goner. This is change you can believe in. A change in which you can believe? Nah, Obama nailed it the first time. And he was right about that other thing, too. Yes, indeed, we can. It’ll take a while, and it will take persistence, determination, and, yes, optimism, but if the ozone layer can come roaring back, so can liberals.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, bon vivant and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry.