Sunday, March 19, 2017

Reasons for Optimism. No, Really.

Sometimes you just need someone to tell you everything's going to be okay. That's why I just read (and loved) Ruy Teixeira's The Optimist Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think. As reporter and author E.J. Dionne, Jr., said, "Beware: This is the rare political book than could force you to smile."

Teixeira makes a compelling case that the best is yet to come for progressive policies. And the book was published just a few weeks ago, so yes, it takes into account the Trump administration and all of the threats it brings.

The Problem with Pessimism

As Teixeira puts it, "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?...Pessimism makes people less likely to believe in positive change, not more likely."

During the Obama administration, we saw a lot of policy successes that will not be reversed, he writes, but "when the left was winning, it often acted as if it was losing." Instead of telling people how bad things have become, he argues, we need to spotlight what's working and build on it. The left needs a positive vision, compelling arguments, and leaders who can embody them.

Reasons for Optimism

Progress has slowed down, but it hasn't stopped. "What's correct is that people want to move up from their current life, not that they believe there is nothing good about their current life....Today, we live in freer, more democratic, less violent, and more prosperous world than we ever have before."

Things are good, and they will get better. "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 21st century."

Demographic changes favor the progressive movement. We're witnessing a societal shift from manufacturing toward a postindustrial, knowledge-based society that's part of a global economy, and that is not going to reverse. Conservatives are clinging to shrinking populations to win elections, and the math just doesn't add up to future success. At the same time, progressives must recognize that emerging constituencies -- including immigrants and minorities, professionals, the highly educated, women, singles, non-religious, Millennials -- "by and large are not the chief beneficiaries of existing welfare states and need a 21st-century version of progressive state action to enable their future."

The Piketty Problem

In Capital in the 21st Century, French economist Thomas Piketty notes that by its very nature, capitalism tends to lead to inequality, concentration of wealth among a few, and lower living standards for the masses. And the way the left and right approach "the Piketty problem," Teixeira says, is very different. "The left sees this as a real problem that can't be solved but the market alone. The right is defined by its defense of market outcomes, no matter how dismal." And that disconnect works in the favor of the left: "The right's view is out of touch with current and future economic reality and will be increasingly unpopular with voters."

We're seeing a real example of that now. Many lower- and middle-class voters bought into the criticisms of Obamacare -- and in fact didn't realize that "Obamacare" (which they hated and wanted repealed) was the same thing as the Affordable Care Act (which they supported because it gave them access to health care). But many of the people who love the rhetoric about making the government smaller, building a wall, and repealing Obamacare will be seriously hurt by the Trump administration's health care and budget proposals. The Republicans' game -- tricking people to get elected (Trump), lying to them about the consequences of cuts (Ryan), and disregarding the human impact of these decisions (Mulvaney) -- just isn't sustainable. In the short term, rich people will get richer and many poor and disadvantaged people will be hurt, but over time, our system will hold these officials accountable. Maybe as soon as the mid-term elections.

Teixeira argues that progressives will be more successful if they embrace the fact that in a capitalist society, good economic times will lead to upward mobility and personal optimism, which in turn will promote social generosity, tolerance, and a sense of shared purpose. So instead of whining about injustice, he says, progressives should point out that high inequality is an obstacle to growth -- for everyone. "Capitalism must be actively pointed in a different direction by adopting a new approach that pushes back against inequality and promotes the economic health of the middle and working classes as the key driver of growth." And the left needs to talk about inequality not just as a problem because it's unfair, but as an obstacle for growth -- for all.

The Opportunity Today

As I read The Optimist Leftist, I often found myself thinking, "Yeah, but..." -- because the challenges we face today are real. We can't ignore those threats, and while we embrace an optimistic view for long-term justice and equality, we have to fight to defend the progress we've made, and push back on bad policy. At the same time, Teixeira's advice is that we see this as a time for defense as we prepare to be on offense. "It is absolutely necessary to agitate for progress during bad times -- to defend progressive gains, to push reforms forward when they are possible, and, of course, to develop the strength of the left. But the strategic imperative of bad times should be to prepare for good times and help make those good times happen."

With a more optimistic view of the long term, I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing. Instead of just telling my elected officials why I oppose cuts to programs I support, I'm telling them how those programs have helped my family and people I know and care about. I'm not just calling the people I oppose, but also thanking my representatives who are supportive and reasonable -- and giving them the information they need to keep fighting.

We're moving in the right direction, and Trump's election does not change who we are -- and will be -- as a country and society. And in the meantime, we can't sit by and wait for things to get better.

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