The Moral Equivalent of Optimism

You may have noticed a recurring theme in this column: that there is a set of assumptions about political possibilities that date from the late 1970s and have led to the timidity of more recent liberal politics -- and that are overdue for questioning.

Here's another: An unfinished challenge from the late 1970s involves the question of how to create a meaningful and successful politics suitable to what then-California Gov. Jerry Brown called "the era of limits." In that first moment when the U.S. confronted the finitude both of fossil fuels and of America's postwar economic hegemony, Brown and Jimmy Carter each sized up the challenge and took a feeble swing at it -- Carter with his inaccurately labeled 1979 "Malaise Speech," and Brown with a spacey politics derived in part from E.F. Schumacher's book, Small is Beautiful. Carter's speech did not stem the disintegration of his administration, and Ronald Reagan's victory the next year has been viewed ever since as proof that optimism is always a winning formula. Successful liberal politicos since 1980 have sought to avoid the Carter trap and to follow instead the sunny Reaganite path, albeit to another destination.

But Carter and Brown weren't selling the eat-your-spinach politics of, say, Paul Tsongas' dreary 1992 focus on the deficit and entitlements. Rather, Carter was attempting -- as in the 1977 speech in which, quoting William James, Carter called for "the moral equivalent of war, except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy" -- to recapture a politics in which a deep commitment to national purpose would be a unifying cause. Carter combined John F. Kennedy's call to peacetime service with the aspirational language for which that first Kennedy inaugural is remembered.

Reagan, the easy optimist, got lucky. The energy crisis faded, and the economy rebounded in time for his "Morning in America" re-election in 1984. But here we are again, with energy and climate change at the front of the agenda and unlikely to go away, with the deindustrialization of the economy that began in the 1970s now nearly complete, and, instead of 52 hostages, with 169,000 U.S. troops stuck in a Middle Eastern country with no easy way out. If ever we needed a robust politics of national commitment and shared sacrifice, it is now.

Meanwhile, the political right has descended into double caricature, torn between a millenarian pessimism in which "people who want to kill us" lurk around every corner (for them, the only moral equivalent of war is war itself), and a cockeyed, vacuous attempt to reincarnate Reagan's boosterism. Conservatives oscillate between endless war and endless tax cuts, seeing no contradiction.

Yet despite the opportunity offered by this laughable dead end of the Reagan tradition, liberal politics is still paralyzed between a small-bore, problem-solving, appeal-to-the-middle-class approach to government (Sen. Hillary Clinton's well-crafted health plan, for example, whose main selling point has been that there's nothing to be afraid of), and the grand, dark, and dutiful mission of, say, Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Liberals oscillate between modest appeals to self-interest and gargantuan appeals to global obligation.

In this confusion, it's a propitious moment to revisit those failed 1970s' attempts to combine the aspiration for a better future with a sense of shared commitment and engagement in building that future, and this time, to get it right. Thus the relevance of Michael Shellenberger's and Ted Nordhaus' new book, Break Through. As the authors of the essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," they are old hands at riling environmentalists, and their advocacy of a job-creating strategy of huge investments in new technology to counter climate change has been met with the predictable attack that climate change can't wait for such niceties. As a matter of science, the critics may have a point, but the burden is on them to show how a call for sacrifice to avoid crisis can succeed politically absent a promise, not just of avoiding disaster, but of an even better future. Shellenberger and Nordhaus demonstrate that America's greatest moments of collective action have come not in response to dire warnings of crisis or dark panic, but at moments of prosperity and optimism. In the great essay, "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren," John Maynard Keynes wrote that it is when people have less worry about their own economic condition that "the nature of one's duty to one's neighbor is changed" for the better.

As the indifferent, disengaged optimism of Reagan runs its course, perhaps we will be able to reignite the flame of that more engaged and passionate optimism, inherent in the liberal tradition from James to Keynes, that has been shelved since 1980.

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