Written by: Terence Corrigan
‘Vote your hopes, not on your fears’ is a phrase much in vogue of late, in appealing to voters in the midterm elections in the United States. And, by no means limited to the US, it is without doubt one of the most common of political injunctions, never more so than when big and weighty questions are at hand.
To vote (or more generally, to act) on one’s hopes is to align oneself with progress. It evokes the good and the positive, what Abraham Lincoln termed ‘the better angels of our nature’. To be guided by one’s fears is to wish to regress. It is to submit to base and dark emotions, to give in to prejudice and to countenance if not encourage conflict.
It is beguiling advice. It is also very bad advice.
Hope and fear are emotions, not principles. Both are inherently subjective. A call to follow hope, or an injunction to beware of fear implies very different things to different people. To suggest – as numerous commentators have done in relation to the American election – that hope lines up neatly with one alternative and fear with another is to misunderstand them.
So, to suggest that American voters who chose the Republicans (shall we say, the ‘conservatives’?) did so out of fear, is to discount the possibility that they may have been feeling rather optimistic about, say, the state of the economy. Hopeful, in other words. Conversely, believing that those who opted for the Democrats (let’s call them ‘progressives’) did so out of ‘hope’ seems to ignore the sense of doom that has emanated from that camp since Mr Trump was elected. Fear has been intrinsic to their narrative.
It’s easy enough to identify elements of hope and fear in any position. To define political positions in these terms ultimately says more about the stance of those making the judgements than those about whom they are made.
Even thinking in these terms is problematic. Hope and fear are frequently stand-in ideas for good and bad. They constitute an ideological lens of sorts, one that assumes motives, applies a moral coding to them, and posits a Manichean and irreconcilable division between political camps. Understanding and empathising with those of the other side is made ever more difficult, and so consequently is dialogue. After all, we know why they think and act as they do …
And there is an unmistakeable element of self-righteousness about this.
Neither hope nor fear is a normative concept. They are responses to perceptions of interests and circumstances. They represent our conditioning to respond to risks.
Where danger is apparent, humans will instinctively act to minimize or counter it. Fear is, in this sense, a means of survival. And it is often entirely rational. Being confronted by a spitting cobra or an intruder rightly prompts fear.
It is also often a rational emotion in politics, such as might arise with a well-founded expectation of the abuse of power, corruption or aggression.
Hope is posited as an antidote to fear. The renowned psychologist Richard Lazarus defined it as ‘fearing the worst, but yearning for better.’ It’s aspirational and motivational. It’s not hard to see the attraction of this – it is a sentiment that undergirded Franklin Roosevelt’s famous exhortation that there was ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’ (not to mention the plotline of Shawshank Redemption).
Sadly, this is not always accurate. Roosevelt’s own generation was to learn the folly of excessive hope when appeasement merely emboldened Nazi Germany. Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister in the late 1930s, triumphantly declared that his negotiations with Adolf Hitler had delivered ‘peace in our time’. He added that his followers should ’go home and get a nice quiet sleep’. Less than a year later, the world would be plunged into one of the most destructive conflicts in human history.
There are indeed times when expecting and preparing for the worst is the most prudent option.
True enough, fears can be invoked to manipulate people. They often are, even when they have little basis in fact. (President Trump has done this – as have his opponents. And this happens closer to home: back in 2013, Deputy President Ramaphosa called on an audience to vote for the ANC, for ‘if you don’t, the Boers will come back to control us’.)
But hope can be no less damaging. Ignoring or downplaying dangers, and trusting in an inherent goodness, and assuming that past lessons have been learned is often foolish. It is astounding, for example, how South Africa’s ‘developmental’ thinking remains wedded to the idea of a strong, capable state – something existing more in the imagination of ideologues than in reality. The truth is, ours is a soft and often incapacitated state. Yet such plans (the National Development Plan being a prime example) have been greeted with rapturous applause.
South African Airways has been a fiscal black hole for years. We may hope that the repeated bailouts will produce a respected national champion, showing profits and contributing to the economy. But it is probably more realistic to fear that it will continue to drain the fiscus for years ahead.
Introducing a regime of Expropriation without Compensation is presented by senior figures in the ruling party as a silver bullet of sorts for land reform – a view endorsed by many ‘progressive’ activists. A hope for prosperity. Yet this is to ignore the real reasons for the indifferent performance of land reform. EWC should evoke fear – it promises nothing but the empowerment of the compromised state. And, if news reports are to be believed, it will be done on the back of an amendment to the bill of rights, after a process that has ignored literally hundreds of thousands of inputs. Both the precedent and policy outcome are concerning.
This is not to say that we should submit to fear. But we must acknowledge it.
Perhaps it is necessary to add a new dichotomy: despair and determination. Despair is fatalistic, a capitulation to fear. Determination is a reply to it – a realisation that even if the odds are stacked badly, we will not oppose it. It acknowledges that there are no guarantees of success, but the inevitability of defeat if the gravity of the threat is not recognised and an effective counter is not developed.
For better or worse, this is the lesson that history teaches us.
Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the Institute of Race Relations sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).