The Political Pitfalls of Pessimism and Optimism
by Benjamin Studebaker
In the United States, we are often exhorted to be optimistic, enthusiastic, and positive about our society and one another, criticising “constructively” or perhaps preferably not at all. The United States has a particularly optimistic political culture, one where you really can make your campaign slogan “hope”, “change”, or “yes we can” and get away with it. The United Kingdom is quite a different place–in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron got into office with the slogan “we can’t go on like this”. There’s a “change” message in there somewhere, but it certainly isn’t phrased in hopeful terms. Today I’d like to have a closer look at the role optimism and pessimism play in the American and British political systems, respectively, discovering how both extremes can have a deleterious effect on government.
In the United States, serious criticism is considered mean, rude even. We can recall in 2008 prior to the Biden-Palin Vice Presidential debate how Joe Biden was urged to go easy on Palin for fear of looking like a “bully”. A serious effort to highlight Palin’s clear inadequacies would have just rubbed people the wrong way, perversely augmenting the McCain/Palin ticket’s numbers. Americans are expected to praise one another and to praise the country and its founding principles (though not always its actual policies). All presidential campaigns try to highlight how great and wonderful and amazing the United States is and how morally just and righteous it is. The idea that America could do something bad is anathema to millions of Americans, hence the effectiveness of Mitt Romney’s accusation that Barack Obama has apologised for America (even though it isn’t true). Why would any patriotic American leader apologise for America? What on earth could America have possibly done to warrant that? No, America surely must be the greatest country in the world, in every category. To say otherwise makes you some kind of foreign agent or someone with an axe to grind, some kind of socialist.
The effects of this are many, and they are not particularly advantageous. If Americans are just going to assume that they have the greatest, most effective, most fair health care system around, they aren’t going to be very keen on reforming it, are they? Why, if Americans think that their country is awesome just the way it is, why bother to reform anything? The optimism of the United States creates a profoundly conservative impulse. Everything is fine–no, fine is too much of an understatement, everything is fantastic, so why consider implementing policies developed elsewhere by other countries, just because the statistics indicate that they work better? No one even bothers to read the statistics in America; they’re such a Debbie Downer, after all. To notice that there are profound structural problems, let alone propose solutions or try to do anything about those problems, is usually seen as unnecessary negativity. To complain is to take America for granted–don’t you know that “there’s no place like America”? That millions of people throughout American history have immigrated in order to get all those liberties and rights and freedoms that you are dissatisfied with? This visceral, emotional protectionism of the status quo causes even obviously and blatantly ridiculous policies and institutions, like the Electoral College or the nation’s current immigration or healthcare laws, to stick around far longer than is reasonable, often to the detriment of the very Americans opposing the changes. It is difficult to notice problems, much less develop credible solutions to them, when you are deliberately going about your politics with rose-coloured glasses, and even more difficult to elect leaders who will take those problems seriously when one of the litmus tests for getting elected in America is affirming America’s pre-existing greatness.
In contrast, in the United Kingdom, believing in much of anything is often thought of as naive and childish. Expectations for the government and its policies are always low, and witty insults and retorts among politicians are considered not merely fair game, but a sort of sport. The British government regularly apologises for past misdeeds and is often lauded for doing so by the British people. At the same time, there is a widespread belief that Britain cannot do much of anything any more, such that many Britons were actually surprised that the Olympics went reasonably well. It would be hard to imagine an Olympics in an American city where half the population was convinced that the whole thing was going to be utterly miserable right up until the very last moment. The British expect their sports teams to lose, their infrastructure projects to go over-budget, their reforms to fail, their journalists to behave unethically, if something can go wrong, the British would consider you foolish to expect it won’t. Many of the British television shows that have done the best in America have done so by playing off that “everything that can go wrong will go wrong” cultural theme, from Mr. Bean to Fawlty Towers.
Of course, this mode of thinking also has demerits. A lack of belief in Britain’s ability to accomplish difficult tasks leads to a lack of ambition in Britain. Big, large projects like High Speed 2 often face opposition because of their scale and inherent scepticism about their ability to be successful. The government’s view of Britain’s economy is so pessimistic that it has assumed a vastly lower potential GDP than likely exists, causing the government to believe that the current British economy is much closer to meeting its potential than it is in reality and resulting in persistently sub-par economic performance and the mother of all output gaps. Rather than try to get the economy moving faster and performing better, the British government settles for spending cuts, and its grim rhetoric about how “sacrifices must be made” to avert “decline” are every bit as gripping for the British as that hopey changey stuff was for Americans. The government can’t do this, the government can’t do that, more and more of its functions are to be turned over to “the big society” instead. A fundamental lack of belief in Britain’s potential and in the potential of the British people, the British government, and British society drives all of this, creating a self-fulfilling cycle of lowering expectations, stooping to meet those expectations, and lowering them further.
Pessimism and optimism, in large quantities, both can create societies incapable of making the necessary adaptations to changing times. While the pessimists doubt our ability to solve our problems and talk down the solutions until we no longer bother trying, the optimists deny that our problems exist altogether. In both cases we end up doing less than we otherwise would and should do, and our societies suffer for it. What’s needed is balance–the pessimism to identify problems, but the optimism that powers solutions to those problems. Delusive thinking in either direction remains irrevocably to our shared detriment.