Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, and author of the new book, The Optimistic Leftist.
It has never been more important to take a long view of the left’s future and not dwell on short-term setbacks. A key effect of Donald Trump’s election is the beginning of the end for austerity economics, formerly the linchpin of conservative policy. Trump’s professed commitment to massive spending on infrastructure and his ostentatious lack of interest in deficit reduction is blowing a hole in austerity dogma that should be welcomed by the left. The decline in that dogma will finally make it possible to break out of the “low growth trap” that has bedeviled the United States and other advanced countries.
Over time, this development will make all the priorities of the left much easier to move forward. The right will continue to be divided between proponents and opponents of austerity, while the left will unite around policies that promote more and better economic growth. But to succeed the left must proceed with confidence and, yes, optimism.
The words “optimism” and “the left” do not seem to go together very well these days. The dominant view on the left — reinforced by Trump’s victory — is as follows: (1) progress in today’s world has largely stopped and in many ways reversed; (2) the left is weak and at the mercy of a rapacious capitalism and a marauding right; and (3) the outlook for the future is bleak, with ordinary citizens suffering even more deprivation and the planet itself sliding inexorably toward catastrophe.
It is not the case that progress has stopped. Today, we live in a freer, more democratic, less violent and more prosperous world than we ever have before.
It is not the case that the left is at the mercy of the right. The form of the left is changing but its numbers are strong and growing. It remains a vital force — the vital force — for reforming capitalism.
And it is not the case that the future of humanity is bleak. The problems we face today are solvable and, moreover, are likely to be solved in the coming decades. Life for ordinary citizens should improve dramatically over the course of the twenty-first century.
It is also staggeringly obvious that pessimism dramatically undermines the appeal of the left. Why on earth would anyone sign up with a movement that believes the situation is so hopeless? What’s so inspiring about that?
Nothing. Yet the left persists in promoting a viewpoint that leads to paralysis and inaction rather than robust action and positive change.
The left wasn’t always like this. Historically, the left has been identified with a belief in the future and the feasibility of dramatic improvements in human welfare.
But something went wrong in the 1970s. The great hopes of the 1960s went aground on the harsh realities of stagflation and then rising inequality and a resurgent right. It was indisputable that progress in important ways was slowing down rather than speeding up as most on the left had hoped.
Various significant electoral defeats for the left followed — most famously the rise of Reagan in America and Thatcher in the U.K. And anti-government ideology thrived, both in politics and economics. The idea that government was the problem, not the solution, gained political credibility that would have seemed unimaginable in previous decades, and economics became dominated by theories that glorified the results of the untrammeled market.
If that wasn’t bad enough, new threats like global warming emerged that cast doubt on the future of humanity writ large. Scientific progress, which once spurred visions of flying cars and lives of abundance and leisure, now seemed powerless to stop the apocalypse (if not complicit in bringing it on).
On the left, optimism went out of fashion, where it has remained to this day. Instead, the left concentrated on reminding voters just how terrible things were becoming. And there was certainly a lot of plausible material along these lines, as Western capitalism continued to underperform in terms of both growth and the distribution of benefits from growth. Data has accumulated over time documenting this poor performance — particularly in the early twenty-first century and in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis — and has been duly promulgated by the left.
Even the great victories of the left in the social realm tended to get lost in this litany of despair. Not to mention concrete policy victories such as those secured by President Obama. In short, when the left was winning, it often acted as if it was losing. Not surprisingly, the desired surge in left support has not materialized.
It is time to recognize that pessimism convinces no one. Marx was wrong about the immiseration of the proletariat, and contemporary leftists are wrong about the immiseration of the middle class. What is correct is that progress has slowed down, not that it has stopped or reversed. What is correct is that people want to move up from their current life, not that they believe there is nothing good about their current life. What is correct is that pessimism makes people less likely to believe in positive change, not more likely.
Finally, what is correct is that the best tonic for the left will be the return of solid and better-distributed economic growth, not just the continuing documentation of our current poor performance. Such growth is eminently possible even without a “political revolution.” Good economic times will promote upward mobility and a sense of personal optimism. That optimism, in turn, will promote a climate of social generosity, tolerance and orientation toward collective advance that will greatly facilitate the agenda of the broad left.
That has been generally true throughout history and recent history indicates that it is still true today. It is time for the left to realize that its romance with pessimism is a bug not a feature of its current practice. There are no substitutes for optimism and an economic climate that promotes optimism.
This is adapted from The Optimistic Leftist. Copyright Ruy Teixeira, 2017. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.