Sunny Side Up?

Rethinking our political fixation on the bright side of life

If a candidate's personality is not sufficiently sunny or inspiring to cause the media to dub him an optimist, his best recourse is simply to dub himself one. Bush is not the first office-seeker to include the line "I'm an optimist" in his stump speech. The Republican candidates Bob Dole and Steve Forbes repeated that formulation endlessly—Dole in his growl, Forbes pressing his sonorous monotone through pursed lips. Republicans are especially eager to embrace the term, because it has a particular meaning within the conservative subculture: it signals fealty to Reaganism—not just the Gipper's sunny outlook but his ideology as well, particularly supply-side economics. The former Wall Street Journal editor and devout supply-sider Robert Bartley described himself as an optimist, and when he died the many tributes to him invariably echoed the description. To an outsider, this would seem curious, because Bartley was a hysteric, famously given to printing black-bordered editorials with headlines like "THE DEATH OF REASON" (in response to the imposition of a windfall-profits tax), or predicting that the Clinton economic plan would bring utter ruin. But to his fellow believers, this ideological code word made perfect sense. For people like Bartley and Forbes, "optimism" means believing pseudo-economic hokum—principally the notion that enormous tax cuts won't produce budget deficits.

Perhaps the more interesting assumption is that there's something inherently virtuous about optimism. The idea of an optimistic President conjures up all sorts of positive images—Franklin Roosevelt offering hope during the Depression, John F. Kennedy exhorting his countrymen to put a man on the moon, Ronald Reagan urging Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Edwards offered the most explicit moral rationale for optimism when he argued, "Cynics didn't build this country. Optimists built this country." As a matter of fact, the Founding Fathers had a deeply pessimistic view of both the public and its prospective leaders, which is why they constructed an elaborate system to prevent not only traditional tyranny but popular tyranny as well. If the people could be trusted to elect saints, we wouldn't need checks and balances, judicial review, bicameral legislatures, and so on.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Money Into the Void" (March 3, 2004)
Is the exorbitant expense of space exploration worth it? Articles from 1895 to the present consider the merits.

True, some of our most revered leaders have been optimists. But optimism has also brought us many of history's monsters. The Crusades, Mao's ruinous Great Leap Forward, Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia—these could have been prevented by a bit less optimism. Last January, when President Bush proposed a mind-bogglingly expensive, scientifically dubious moon station and a trip to Mars, Newt Gingrich admonished critics thus: "Those who jump up and down and say, 'Don't go to the moon, don't go to Mars' have a hard argument, because they are up against 250 years of optimism in American history." I had never really thought of American destiny as a succession of crackpot schemes foisted on the populace for partisan expediency. But then, maybe I'm just an optimist.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.
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