The attacks of 9/11 followed by the Great Recession changed the way a lot of (mostly white) people feel about America in ways that aren't articulated often enough. We are experiencing demographic change that is unprecedented, are nearing the end of two terms for our first African American president and are likely on the cusp of electing our first female president. All of that is happening as we are experiencing the effects of globalization and automation in our economy while technology becomes more central to how we live our everyday lives. Finally, we are just beginning to feel the effects of climate change - with effects that most of us are unable to predict.
We can play the political parlor game of trying to suss out which of these is the most responsible for the dynamics of our current politics, or we can notice that the combination of those changes is affecting all of us. When Kevin Drum wonders why both political parties are afraid to talk about an improving economy and Gregg Easterbrook asks when optimism became uncool, I suspect that it is the weight of all of these changes that is the answer. But Easterbrook makes an interesting observation.
Though candidates on the right are full of fire and brimstone this year, the trend away from optimism is most pronounced among liberals. A century ago Progressives were the optimists, believing society could be improved, while conservatism saw the end-times approaching. Today progressive thought embraces Judgment Day, too...The Tea Party responded to these changes by saying that they wanted to "take our country back." When Donald Trump talks about "making America great again," that's essentially what he is saying too. That is a pretty common reaction among human beings to change...it is something to be feared and avoided.
Pessimists think in terms of rear-guard actions to turn back the clock. Optimists understand that where the nation has faults, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Traditionally progressives have faced challenges like this by working on ways to move forward rather than pinning for days past. To do so requires things like curiosity and creativity. The past can be examined objectively, but the future is still uncertain. Ideologues too often stand in the way of curiosity and creativity. Here is how then-Senator Barack Obama talked about that back in 2005:
...the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, "true" progressive vision for the country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward. When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive "checklist," then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems.I believe that this is why the President so often says that it is young people who inspire his optimism. They tend to be free of the ideologies and baggage of the past. Instead, they bring fresh eyes to the challenges we face going forward. Progressives need not fear the changes we are experiencing today when we tap into all of that.