Arthur Brooks | We Need Optimists

Arthur C. Brooks, New York Times:

I was 16 years old when Reagan was first elected. If I could have voted, I certainly would not have voted for him. When I was growing up in Seattle, no one I knew could stand him. But his optimism had an effect on me. Despite all of my biases and influences, I wanted a leader with this optimistic attitude. Secretly, I was not sorry he won.

Reagan’s optimism should not be understood ideologically; it was simply about people and our potential. He possessed an unflinching belief that all people — the poor, children, the elderly — were human assets, waiting to be developed so they could earn their success.

In contrast, pessimists see people as liabilities to manage, as burdens or threats that we must minimize. This manifests itself on the political left when we construct welfare programs that fail to boost unemployed Americans back into the work force. On the right, it shows up in strains of anti-immigrant sentiment or throw-away-the-key criminal sentencing.

Millions of Americans are frustrated by the environment of competing pessimisms in Washington today. Some say it is a result of the fact that the parties have never been further apart ideologically. They hark back to better times when there was more overlap between Democrats and Republicans.

I disagree. Maximum progress would come not from convergence on an unsatisfying centrism, but from a true competition of optimistic visions for a better future. Research suggests that optimists can find solutions where pessimists do not. And while competing optimists may disagree, sometimes fiercely, they don’t mistake policy differences for a holy war.

But let’s say that competition does not occur. What happens if one side unilaterally breaks out of the current negative equilibrium? I predict it will see victory — especially if the other side doubles down on pessimism and division.


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