How to counter pessimism? Listen to Gandhi.

The British had taken the subcontinent by force. Was it not right, many Indians asked, to retake it by force?

Mohandas Gandhi (right) leads a nonviolent protest as part of his broader civil disobedience campaign in India, March 26, 1930.

When Mohandas Gandhi sought to overthrow British rule in India, he planned a revolution of thought. The British had taken the subcontinent by force. Was it not right, many Indians asked, to retake it by force? Gandhi answered in the article “Means and Ends”:

“Your belief that there is no connection between the means and the end is a great mistake. ... Your reasoning is the same as saying that we can get a rose through planting a noxious weed. ... We reap exactly as we sow.”

In this week’s print issue, our Simon Montlake looks at the state of American politics and comes to a fascinating observation. Beyond the polarization and the gridlock, there is something arguably even more surprising and concerning: The primary currency of American politics today is pessimism.   

These things, of course, can be cyclical. A previous cover story explored how many of the things we are seeing today hark back to the 1970s – another time of relative pessimism. The result was Ronald Reagan, an unabashed optimist who campaigned on a new morning in America and likened the nation to a “shining city on a hill.” Optimism would seem to be in America’s DNA.

Yet there is no indication (yet) that this generation’s Reagan is near. From the Capitol insurrection to the pandemic to Afghanistan to the war in Ukraine, the political world seems to constantly be plumbing new depths. How do we get out of this downward spiral? Gandhi’s words offer food for thought.

In his cover story, Simon mentions “negative partisanship” as one of the strongest political forces of today. Negative partisanship basically means disliking – even hating – the other side more than liking your own side. According to one 2019 study exploring “lethal mass partisanship,” about two-thirds of Americans view those in the other party as a serious threat. 

Is it any wonder, given the outrage industry we see on social media and in commentaries on cable TV and in news publications? Gandhi might well say, “We reap exactly as we sow.” Is it logical to invest so much energy in hating one another and expect a different result?

The issue, then, is not a downward cycle of events. It is a downward cycle of thought. How do we address that? 

The tendency might be to think that individual and isolated attempts to direct thought toward greater compassion and understanding is either naive or hopelessly insufficient. For his part, Gandhi thought neither. In his book “Non-Violent Resistance,” a questioner asks, is it not important to sway as many followers as possible? Gandhi replies, “I do not regard the force of numbers as necessary in a just cause, and in such a cause every man, be he high or low, can have his remedy.”

Gandhi called this satyagraha, or “truth struggle.” The remedy for all humanity was truth, and what mattered was not force of numbers, but the purity of the struggle for truth. But “Mahatmaji,” the questioner asks, “how can a single man’s voice be heard?”

“That,” Gandhi answered, “is exactly what I have been attempting to disprove."

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