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April 4, 2004 - The case against gloom and doom.

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Liberal Hopefulness Long Lost

Why are conservatives always so cheery and liberals always so glum?  The case against gloom and doom…



Of note, over at The American Prospect, Neal Gabler tries to explain the differences between liberals and conservative and it’s a hoot.


See Liberalism's Lost Script
Democrats used to thrive on Hollywood endings. Today, liberalism is more like a dark, complicated novel. It's time to go back to making movies.

By Neal Gabler - Issue Date: 04.01.04


What it comes down to is optimism:


Lately, trying to determine exactly how we became embroiled in Iraq has become a kind of intellectual parlor game.  Was it oil?  Settling old scores?  Diverting attention from terrorism?  Fulfilling the neoconservative agenda? 


There is probably some truth in each of these, but of all the reasons that have been adduced for the war in Iraq -- and for the administration's failure to have devised a comprehensive postwar plan there -- the most significant may be the least conspiratorial, complex, or even politically motivated.  The war planners never really thought there was any downside to going in, or that anything could go wrong in the aftermath.  They assumed that the troops would sweep across Iraq without resistance, that Iraqis would greet them as liberators and stick flowers in the barrels of their rifles, and that an Iraqi government would be installed in relatively short order.  They made these assumptions, we now know, not on the basis of any intelligence or understanding of the Iraqi situation.  They made them because it seems they were in thrall to an idea that has become a fundamental component of modern American conservatism generally.  It is the idea that, in the end, everything turns out well. 


One can see just how significant an underpinning of conservative doctrine this has become by looking at a range of issues, from the jobless recovery (the jobs are coming, the administration promises) to the ballooning deficit (the deficit will shrink, the president says) to imperiled public education (testing will take care of everything) to Medicare (the market will bring down costs).  Wishful thinking is not only the Bush administration's primary policy; it is its governing ideology. 


But if conservatives act as if happy endings are always in the offing, liberals, by contrast, have come to act as if nothing can ever go right, as if a cloud surrounds every silver lining. 


Now that is a curious argument – but born out in my many conversations with my good friend, a staunch conservative.


Gabler here actually argues that conservatives have, in the classical sense of the word, a comic vision of the world, liberals a tragic vision.  Or as he puts it, conservatism has become a Hollywood movie, liberalism has become literature.  The is idea is that like the movie blockbusters, contemporary conservatives …

  • centralize action,
  • extol the power of the individual to bend the world to his or her will,
  • demonize enemies to the point where anything short of annihilation would be a surrender,
  • operate from an absolute confidence in the hero's rightness while treating opposition to it as a form of treason,
  • and promise the comforting catharsis of eventual victory that confirms everything that has gone before.   

What about liberals?  They … 

  • centralize thought and deliberation rather than action,
  • fasten on human interconnectedness and the inability of any one individual (or nation) to command events,
  • attempt to understand the complexity of life,
  • operate from a decidedly wary position when it comes to absolute certainties,
  • and promise no final victories. 

Gabler does comment on how conservatism has its roots in Thomas Hobbes,


… with his jaundiced view of human nature, and in Edmund Burke, with his emphasis on a natural order with which one tampers only at grave risk.  This was hardly a prescription for optimism, much less Pollyannaish faith that all will end well.  Rather, it was a form of hard-boiled realism.  You had to take the world as it was and hope for the best.  Translated into politics, conservatism -- at least in its American incarnation -- encouraged social Darwinism, economic rapacity, protectionism, a minimal government, self-reliance, and independence.  For better or worse, people were to be left to their own devices without any interference.  In foreign policy, conservatism was basically isolationist except when, in the natural course of things, America could reap rewards without undue risk.  In effect, it was an ideology in which power and fate ruled. 


Yes, there wasn't much about this form of conservatism that was inspiring, it did nevertheless have its “flinty attractions.”   One thinks of John Wayne –


… it had the virtue of seeming tough-minded and manly, a way of facing the world without illusions and of avoiding the unpredictable consequences of intervention.  What conservatism pointedly did not promise was that some good would necessarily come of all this inaction.  A world without illusions was also a world without giddy expectations. 


Liberalism on the other hand does have its roots in John Locke, with his faith in human possibility, and in William James and John Dewey, who thought man was less a passive victim of history than an active shaper of it.  The virtues of that?  It encouraged social welfare, economic justice, free trade, compassion, and a sense of community.  In fact, Gabler points out that this used to be the ideology of optimism, “pointing not to how things inevitably were but to how they should be, and not to man's helplessness in the natural swirl but to his greater destiny.” 


So what happened to make the liberals into pessimists and the conservatives into optimists?  It seems that somewhere between Kennedy (“the embodiment of hope”) and Ronald Reagan, conservatism and liberalism changed places. 


Well one point – there was that Vietnam War.


Optimism is difficult to maintain when things don't turn out the way they're forecasted.  No one was more an apostle of liberal optimism than Lyndon Johnson, who had studied, after all, at Roosevelt's knee, but the Vietnam War eroded confidence in government and ultimately forced liberals into a pessimism about the value of trying to do good in an uncertain and dangerous world.  Indeed, the war divided the Democratic Party not only between hawks and doves but also between those who believed in America's mission as the beacon of freedom and those who had come to doubt it.  Once the war turned bad, liberals turned wary, fixating on examining how things had gone wrong.  As everyone now knows, this was the new liberalism - gun-shy and cautious.  It no longer embraced a "rendezvous with destiny," as Roosevelt had declared.  By the 1970s and the Carter administration, it had a meeting with malaise. 


Another point was the conservative found Ronald Reagan:


Not at all accidentally, while liberalism was undergoing its soul-searching, conservatism was undergoing a face-lift.  The modern conservative movement, spearheaded by Barry Goldwater, had been as sour and antagonistic as the old conservative movement.  Its prescriptions were cast in gloom, especially when set against Johnson's bold self-assurance.  Ronald Reagan changed all that.  Reagan's major contribution to conservatism was not ideological (he basically followed the old Goldwater line).  It was aesthetic.  While deploying simplistic sound bites like "government is the problem" that drove liberals to distraction, Reagan, who had been a great admirer of Roosevelt, was accomplishing something much more profound.  He managed to graft Roosevelt's implacable optimism and sense of destiny onto a conservative movement that had long resisted those things, and he did so at the very time when liberalism had turned pessimistic. 


The argument is that while conservatives still seemed to believe that natural forces determined the course of events, Reagan seemed to think that nature was not indifferent but progressive. 


… a movie actor who had made his living by conveying a sense of confidence to audiences, Reagan as a politician was equally cheery and free of doubt, and just as American movies typically had happy endings, he convinced Americans that the country would have a happy ending, too.  In effect, Reagan turned conservative politics into a movie.  History was moving in the right direction.  Everything was going to be all right.  It was morning in America.  Polls indicated that most Americans did not agree with Reagan's policy positions, but they loved his attitude, which was liberalism's old attitude.  Whatever else he did, Reagan, like Roosevelt and Kennedy before him, seemed certain of victory. 


Thus we come to the younger Bush.  His approach?


         Act as if you are the Chosen One. 

         Be certain. 

         Be confident. 

         Don't entertain any doubts. 

         Don't call for sacrifice or introspection.

         Keep telling everybody that everything will be all right. 


And of course it helps to be lucky and well-connected.  Things just fell right for Bush and, as Gabler puts it - the luck as much as the optimism has buoyed his appeal because it promises that the country will be as lucky as he.  Things just seem to fall right for conservatives. 


This puts the liberals in a pickle, of course. They have to take the other role.


One wonders what to make of what Gabler calls these “contrasting aesthetics: the comforting bromides of conservative cheerfulness versus the disturbing sobriety of new liberalism's cold glare.” 


Yes, it may be foolish and even dangerous to view the world as anything but tragic, doing so isn't a very promising way to win votes. 


Twenty-five years ago, conservatives stole liberal optimism, and George W. Bush, currently bumping from one disaster to another, is relying on it to pull him through this election.  He may succeed -- unless liberals can rediscover their Rooseveltian sense of hope and convince Americans that they again have a rendezvous with destiny.  That is both liberalism's tradition and its traditional appeal. 


As I said in these pages on 28 May 2003 (the archive links aren’t working so well, so you’ll have to trust me on this)…


Do you remember the clear-headed, no-bullshit, let's-be-fair liberals of yesterday?  Bobby Kennedy in that last run just laying it all out - hey, some stuff is wrong here and why don't we think it through, fix it and make things better?  Well, Bobby got shot.  Martin Luther King doing the same thing.  Well, he got shot a few months earlier than Bobby.  Of course, to be fair, George Wallace got shot too.  Lots of people got shot. 


But the point is that those optimistic "why don't we fix it and make things better" kinds of guys are nowhere to be found these days.  What you'll see on Bush campaign stickers in the 2004 election?  You know - variations on "Just Do It" or "Money Talks, Bullshit Walks" or "Get In, Sit Down, Shut Up, And Hold On" -- and of course that quote from Marge Simpson  -- "We can stand here like the French, or we can do something about it."  The other side, the Democrats, will have bumper stickers asking if we all can't just get along.
No Democrat will win anything by whining about the smirking frat boy or by fretting about some British essayist hating cheeseburgers and everything American.  To win the Democrats would have to field an opponent with a sense of humor, some brains, and a lot of optimism, someone who listens to what is being said, and is willing to say - "Hey, some stuff is wrong here and why don't we think it through, fix it and make things better?" 


It does not seem like that is going to happen.  And if it did, he or she would get shot.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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