No, I’m not talking about the glass ceiling—although there is plenty to say about that. I am talking about the other metaphorical glass, the one used to pose a question. I first encountered this question when my grandfather posed it to me as we were sitting in his kitchen, a glass of water in front of him. I was about nine or ten years old, and we were having a snack—probably fig newtons, which were his favorite. As I munched on my newton, my grandfather pointed to the glass of water in front of him and said, “Elizabeth, is that glass half full or half empty?”
I hesitated, because I sensed that the answer I wanted to give was unacceptable. Clearly, this was a yes or no question, a choice between opposites. But that’s not how I saw the glass. I can’t remember what I said, but my guess is that it was some version of “I don’t know.” I remember feeling vaguely as though I had failed an important test.
It took me years—and many feverish bouts of both idealism and cynicism—to realize that the answer I wanted to give is valid. I wanted to say: Both.
Because it is, you know. Half full and half empty. I think about this sometimes when my husband and I are enjoying our evening beer together, and I’m about halfway through my drink. I look at the golden deliciousness in my glass and see that the glass is half empty—plus, I remember drinking it. Of course the glass is half empty, and I’m glad it is, because that was some damn good beer. And look—there’s more! Of course the glass is half full, because there’s more to drink. And I’m glad, because that is some damn good beer.
This, my friends, is how I approach politics—even and especially because politics are the determining factor in how free each of us is. Why even and especially? Because I think approaching American politics with an understanding that it is a game being played primarily by people who have power and want to keep it, a game that requires both idealism and cynicism—is the only way to create change in a system that is vehemently opposed to change.
This fact creates a system of hellish compromise, in which every win is countered by a loss and every loss puts lives on the line. The President of the United States, by definition, is the leader of a nation that was founded as a patriarchy, and that enforces patriarchy both domestically and globally. This has always been so. Some people have pushed very hard to make dents in our patriarchy—both nationally and globally—and have made great progress. There is much more to be made—and it will be made within the context of existing national and global patriarchy. That is true whether the President is Clinton or Sanders or Cruz or Trump. A Cruz or Trump presidency would tighten the reins of the patriarchy and look to dig its roots in deeper. A Sanders or Clinton presidency—like Obama—would face fierce resistance to change in patriarchal structures every step of the way.
In seeing the political glass as half full and half empty, I’m not slamming idealism—on the contrary, I think we need it. Desperately. We need it to push us toward living as closely as we can to change. We need to embrace our idealism to sustain us through the obstinate resistance of those who oppose change.
We also need to see our idealism as half of the equation—the half-full part of the glass—that must be understood within the context of its other half—the mundane questions of how and why and cost and cause and effect. When we put these two halves together, we get truth—the kind that, while it is painful and slow and demoralizing at times, allows us to form strategy, define goals, and put ideals into action.