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When I was younger, I was sure that those of us whose politics lay to the left of center were the advocates of hope, the purveyors of optimism, the defenders of idealism.
We believed in help for those who needed it, in a more robust and inclusive democracy and in a healthier planet. We opposed senseless wars, favoring dialogue with our adversaries. We didn’t cling, as the right seemed to, to bitter prejudices or aggressive policies but championed the upbeat politics of a better and fairer world.
So why do I now wake up feeling I’m preaching the politics of pessimism? How did the Democratic Party and its liberal-to-left followers become the voice of desolation and woe?
The voice of catastrophic climate change.
The voice of masks and mandates and staying home.
The voice of the-American-dream-is-dead and we’re all downwardly mobile. The voice of that-was-an-insurrection and our democracy is collapsing.
At the Democratic convention in 2020, Joe Biden talked about “this season of darkness in America.” He was referring to Donald Trump, and he of course couched his comments as a promise to brighten things up if elected, but he was tapping into fear and unhappiness among his supporters that went even deeper than the then-president.
These days, Democrats seem (and scholarly studies back me up on this) less happy than Republicans. And I don’t buy the argument that it's just the result of a lack of faith and family and community on the left, as some have suggested. I suspect it’s at least partly a conviction — which Republicans apparently don’t share — that with climate change, the pandemic and the threats to American democracy, the world is going to hell.
I’m not saying Democrats haven’t had dark moments in the past. It has long been liberals and progressives proselytizing against the grave threat of nuclear weapons, which is hardly a cheerful message. George McGovern’s presidential campaign song in 1972 was “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” And Jimmy Carter famously alienated voters in 1979 with his warnings of a “crisis of the American spirit.”
But those were exceptions to a generally hopeful message.
Once, the Democratic mantra was “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which Franklin Roosevelt first used as a campaign theme song at a time — 1932 — when happy days were distinctly not here again. And “High Hopes,” which was John F. Kennedy’s song even though the Vietnam crisis was deepening and a reckoning on racial injustice was imminent. I doubt anyone focus-grouped those songs — but the candidates understood instinctively that people need hope to hold on to, especially when times are tough.
In 2008, Barack Obama had “hope” plastered on all those Shepard Fairey campaign posters; his belief in positive change was clear.
Now, I’m not advocating that the Democratic politicians should lie to voters or pander or downplay the dismal, dangerous realities by putting on a happy face. Today’s problems are too great and serious for that. Only people in self-denial would not feel a measure of anxiety.
But hopelessness and imminent planetary cataclysm are not inspiring messages, nor are they particularly useful, nor even the whole, true story.
Political scientist Ruy Teixeira notes that the left increasingly sees the future of humanity as bleak, and he reasonably asks: “Why on Earth would anyone sign up with a movement that believes the situation is so hopeless?”
We all know instinctively that uplifting messages are more appealing and energizing — such as Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America” and Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” Increasingly, the Democrats feel like the Eeyore party, while the Republicans have become the party of delusional optimism and misplaced, “What, me worry?” self-confidence. (Though, to be fair, conservatives have their own brand of dark pessimism. Remember, for instance, the 2016 Republican convention when Trump played on fears of crime, violence and immigration.)
I’m not calling for head-in-the-sandism on the part of Democratic voters or their elected representatives. I’m suggesting that, rather than becoming the party of “No, We Can’t,” there are surely ways to be realistic about the enormous problems facing the country without surrendering to them or becoming defeatist.
After all, we live in a fundamentally peaceful era, without the all-consuming total wars between the great powers that characterized the 20th century. For all the challenges around the world to liberal democracy, the Pew Research Center puts global democracy "at or near a modern day high." The world remains dreadfully unfair and unequal, but most people live longer, healthier, wealthier lives than at any time in history.
“If you had to choose a moment in time to be born, any time in human history, and you didn’t know ahead of time what nationality you were or what gender or what your economic status might be, you’d choose today...,” said Barack Obama in a 2016 speech from which I took some inspiration. “The trajectory of our history over the last 50, 100 years has been remarkable.”
A bit of optimism gets me out of bed in the morning, even with the Omicron variant circulating, even though I know homelessness and poverty are raging outside my door, and even though unseasonable warmth is simply a reminder of the dangers ahead.
But for all the very real problems facing us, and despite our repeated failures recently to pull together to fight them, it is a fact that humans have overcome tremendous challenges before. Democrats should start believing we can do so again.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.