This morning, Jonathan Chait wrote, Why Optimism Is Still America’s Greatest Strength. Basically, I agree with him. Cynicism and pessimism don’t generally lead to reform. But a mixture is important, because there is a dark side to optimism; it can cause complacency. I want to talk about optimism from a different perspective, however.
The traditional conservative take on liberals is that we are pessimistic and think America is weak and evil. I think this is kind of a contradiction. For one thing, evil in the weak doesn’t really matter. I think that the United States is extremely powerful and that we often use that power to do great evil. But I am surprisingly optimistic about the future. Most of the time I think that the arc of history bends toward justice. But for the last almost four decades, it has been bending decidedly toward injustice.
On the other side, the conservative take on themselves is that they are optimistic and think America is powerful and good. But this isn’t really true of conservatives—today anyway. In particular, they only think we are strong in terms of our military. I guess that is to be expected, because to a conservative, power is only manifested in terms of bending others to your will. Regardless, they do not think we are powerful when it comes to anything else. In their eyes, America will always be less than some mythical America they apparently got from watching Leave It To Beaver.
What’s more, they are permanently pessimistic on the domestic front. Crime is always out of control, regardless of how much it falls. The Federal Reserve is powerless to help the economy, but it just might destroy it. We can’t take care of the poor because we are too far in debt. (Note: we are never too far in debt to fight another unnecessary war.) We can’t provide anything even close to equality of opportunity because rich children must be given better schools than poor children. In the conservative mind, we can’t do anything because times are bad and they are only getting worse.
The weird thing is that they are right to think this. Any given conservative is just a snapshot of the movement at a particular time. But if you go through American history, you will see that the conservatives lose basically every battle they fight. A conservative may be someone who stands athwart history, yelling, “Stop!” But history mows them down and moves on to younger conservatives yelling stop about something else. Conservatives were for the monarchy. Conservatives were for slavery. Conservatives were against women voting. Conservatives are always on the wrong side of history.
So conservatives are right to be pessimistic. As I’ve written elsewhere, “Conservative opinion only has a shelf life of a generation.” Today they celebrate Martin Luther King Jr, but at the time they hated and feared him and claimed he was a communist; they were at best apologists for Jim Crow. (And don’t bring up liberal Republicans from the past, because the parties used to not line up that well ideologically.) But as Corey Robin has argued at great length, conservatives will always be against expanding rights and so will always see the country slipping further and further from their ideal.
Of course, it is the conservatives who are always out there chanting, “We’re number one!” And that has always struck me as the kind of thing done by really insecure people. And I think this is why. Barring a fascist takeover of the United States (and I won’t rule it out), history will continue to run them down. And in addition to everything else, they’ll have to pretend that, “Of course I was always for same sex marriage!”—and everything else they were against when it mattered.