The Case for Conditional Optimism


I missed only one day of class during my entire first semester of college: November 9th, the day after the presidential election. I could not imagine functioning on a campus that seemed to be in mourning, let alone in a small, intimate classroom. In the months following, I’ve frequently felt restricted by anger, fear, despair, and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Many of the hateful, exclusionary promises Donald Trump made during his campaign have sickeningly taken shape. His first months in office have already seen the confirmation of divisive, unqualified individuals to his Cabinet, a greenlight for the Dakota Access Pipeline, and two rash immigration bans imposed upon several majority Muslim countries.[1][2][3]

It would be a waste of breath to say that a dark cloud of pessimism and fear hangs over the U.S. and has already started to gloom over other countries. Pessimism is everywhere, and rightfully so. The news media know well how the public reacts to shocking news, and it uses this knowledge to perpetuate headlines that make the existence of good seem questionable.The world’s current climate makes the case for conditional optimism extremely difficult, but all the more necessary.

One proponent of conditional optimism is Steven Pinker, a professor at Harvard who specializes in linguistics, psychology, and cognitive science. In an interview, Pinker argues that the world is in fact improving, contrary to widely held opinion, and that he is conditionally optimistic about the future.[4] Pinker credits the distinction between complacent optimism and conditional optimism to economist Paul Romer, who defined complacent optimism as “the feeling of a child waiting for presents,” in contrast to conditional optimism, “the feeling of a child who is thinking about building a treehouse… If I /get some wood and nails and persuade some other kids to help do the work, we can end up with something really cool.”[5] The treehouse that is a democratic America based on constitutional values has already been built, through centuries of movements and leaders who believed in freedom and equality for all. Now, that treehouse is quickly being torn apart by hateful policy and rhetoric.

Using conditional optimism as a mobilizing force, we must resist the destruction of democracy in the form of unconstitutional executive orders, the rejection of indisputable facts by our elected officials, and exclusionary, dangerous rhetoric. Given the circumstances, perseverance seems a monumental thing to ask of anyone affected by the Trump administration’s policies. Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci described the strength that maintaining optimism demands: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”[6] However, this difficulty has not deterred millions around the world from marching, protesting, and rallying, a testament to the belief that perseverance and action are worth the struggle for the justice they can bring.

Perseverance and conditional optimism go hand in hand. To take the time and effort to demonstrate for hours at numerous events is to believe there is something worth fighting for. In Boston, over 200,000 people attended the Women’s March in late January. Senator Elizabeth Warren addressed the crowds, encouraging resistance and promoting democracy: “We will fight for what we believe in.”[7] In Kenya, the native country of former President Barack Obama’s father, women marched between villages chanting, “Solidarity with all the women, women on the march.”[8] In Paris, people gathered around the Eiffel Tower, waving flags and holding signs with messages such as, “We’ve got our eyes on you, Mr. Trump.”[9] In Mexico City, both American and Mexican demonstrators gathered in solidarity with the Women’s March, chanting, “Love, not hate, makes America great.”[10]

In higher power structures, cities and states voiced their opposition to Trump’s travel ban. Since its initial introduction and attempted implementation in January, the travel ban has been criticized and blocked by several state governments and federal judges. In February, 17 states, including Washington, New York, and Virginia, legally challenged the executive order. In Seattle, James Robart, a federal judge nominated by George W. Bush, filed a temporary restraining order against the travel ban, citing that “blocking the president’s order was in the public interest.”[11] The restraining order remained in effect until the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled to uphold the suspension on February 9th. In early March, Trump signed yet another executive order to restrict travel to and from Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. The new travel ban was immediately blocked by U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson in Hawaii, followed by legal challenges filed by several states, including Maryland and Washington.[12] Trump responded to the judges’ decisions by calling their actions “an unprecedented judicial overreach.”[13] Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, called criticisms of the judiciary “demoralizing” and “disheartening.”[14]

In response to the travel ban, sometimes referred to as the “Muslim ban,” thousands of demonstrators flooded airports in the U.S. to show support and solidarity with immigrants, refugees, students, and families arriving from countries on the ban list. Lawyers and attorneys from several major law firms and nonprofits also showed up at international airports where noncitizens were beginning to be detained upon arrival.[15] Initially called upon by the International Refugee Assistance Project, the lawyers and attorneys gave advice and filed petitions for individuals and families detained without warning.

Additionally, academics, workers, and the average American all responded in their own ways, including through petitions, such as the Academics Against Immigration Order, which over 42,000 academic supporters have signed, including 62 Nobel Laureates.[16] In major cities, there seems to be a different protest or rally every week, whether related directly to attacking Trump’s policies, or in solidarity with movements and organizations such as Planned Parenthood and Black Lives Matter. These worldwide demonstrations have been heartening, cathartic, and awe-inspiring. As the implementation of Trump’s promised policies continues, so too will the momentum of resistance fueled by conditional optimism. These actions send a message that for every step backward the Trump administration attempts to take, millions of Americans are prepared to push forward with resistance.

All my life I’ve been given the label “optimist.” As I grew older and I saw optimism increasingly tied to words like naive, unintelligent, and ignorant, I shied away from it. I felt this most strongly during my first month of college; I hesitated to raise my hand in classrooms I felt were dominated by realist assumptions of the worst. This is not to say that I live in a cheerful, naive bubble; I understand and agree that there is a lot to be angry about, that some things cannot be compromised, and that news and issues related to poverty, war, inequalities, and unqualified, fear-mongering leaders demand solemnity and incite feelings of despair. However, as an immigrant, as a woman of color, I refuse to succumb to despair. I, along with other women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ persons, and refugees know that we do not have the privilege of complacency. To be able to throw your hands up and admit defeat is a strong indication of privilege, and it’s a luxury marginalized people have never been able to afford.

When Trump banned Americans from entering their own country, could their families simply give up? When government machines tore up sacred earth in the Dakotas, did the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe ever actually have the choice to fight? When Republicans move to gut Planned Parenthood, can women in America sit back and watch decades of fighting amount to nothing? The answer is no. As I witnessed unfounded hatred toward immigrants, an image of my mother, who still has a green card, who cannot vote, appeared in my head. No, to give up is definitely not an option.

Unfortunately, it took the election of Trump for me to truly admire and embrace the power of conditional optimism. At first I often faltered. I found myself resonating more with the late Dr. Hans Rosling, who once said that he was not an optimist, but rather “a very serious possibilist.”[17] I quickly realized that the label is insignificant so long as the same gut feeling, that something has gone terribly wrong and that you must do everything you can to fix it, mobilizes you. While our reasons for resisting Trump may be be varied, we must allow conditional optimism to harness and amplify them. Acting out of desperation alone can lead to rash, ineffective decisions. However, acting based on the belief that we cannot be bystanders to the destruction of our democracy, and that we must be our own advocates, is the most effective way to resist.

While resistance continues, so too must the commitment to be inclusive and aware. There is no single type of person who opposes Trump. In a crowd of protesters, people of all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and religions are present. Therefore, those with privilege must be cautious not to overstep, speak for, or oppress marginalized people. To rally and protest without solidarity is exclusionary and ineffective, and any social movement that fails to be intersectional is no better than the institutions they criticize. Kimberle Crenshaw, a leading scholar of critical race theory, advocates for intersectionality and recognizes its urgency: “We can no longer give mere lip service to intersectionality and the indivisibility of social justice.”[18] Even the Women’s March received criticism for embracing white feminism. Many women wore pink “pussy hats,” which were perceived as transphobic and racist. The power of collective conditional optimism cannot be lessened by ignorance. As we move forward, a commitment to continual self-education and intersectionality is imperative.

By feverishly resisting Trump and his policies, we are sending a clear message of opposition, perseverance, and civil disobedience, fueled by conditional optimism. This is deeper than a glass half-empty or half-full. This is about remembering that it is easy to despair and wrong to be complacently optimistic. But it is radical and necessary to be conditionally optimistic.


[1] Berman, Russell, “The Donald Trump Cabinet Tracker.” The Atlantic, February 16 2017. Web. February 18 2017.
[2] Dennis, Brady and Juliet Eilperin, “Trump Administration to Approve Final Permit for Dakota Access Pipeline.” Washington Post, February 7 2017. Web. February 18 2017.
[3] Parlapiano, Alicia and Anjali Singhvi, “Trump’s Immigration Ban: Who is Barred and Who Is Not.” New York Times, February 3 2017. Web. February 15 2017.
[4] Belluz, Julia, “It May Have Seem Like the World Fell Apart in 2016. Steven Pinker is Here to Tell You It Didn’t.” Vox, December 22 2016. Web. January 4 2017.
[5] Romer, Paul, “Conditional Optimism about Progress and Climate.” Paul Romer, July 21, 2016. Web. February 18 2017.
[6] Gramsci, Antonio, and Frank Rosengarten. “Letters from Prison.” New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
[7] Allen, Evan and Jaclyn Reiss, “Elizabeth Warren riles up crowd at Women’s March in Boston.” Boston Globe, January 21, 2017. Web. February 19 2017.



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