The Optimistic Leftist builds on The Emerging Democratic Majority, a book Teixeira co-authored with journalist John Judis in 2002, which argued that increasing demographic diversity would create an enduring advantage for Democrats in the United States. The Emerging Democratic Majority has been held up as a cautionary tale in making sweeping political predictions. But Teixeira argues that it has been oversimplified and misunderstood, saying in an interview that "it was not an argument that demographic change guarantees electoral success," but rather that demographic shifts create favorable political terrain for Democrats if they can find a way to make the most of it.
Part of the message of The Optimistic Leftist seems to be that underlying advantages aren’t enough to deliver political victory if liberals succumb to complacency or are paralyzed by fear. The book emphasizes that optimism about the future of the political left is not only warranted, but also strategic. An optimistic outlook will help liberals enact their political agenda and win elections, Teixeira believes, while wallowing in pessimism will hurt the progressive cause.
I recently spoke with Teixeira about those arguments, and their potential limitations. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length, appears below.
Clare Foran: Your book argues that pessimism “dramatically undermines the appeal of the left,” and “does not motivate the typical person” while “optimism, by contrast, mobilizes people.” Why do you think pessimism won’t mobilize Democrats? Reporting on town hall protests that have taken place in the aftermath of the presidential election suggests that people are motivated by anger and fear, and that many had not engaged in political activism previously. Doesn’t that cut against your claim that optimism is a better motivator than pessimism?
Ruy Teixeira: Outrage can be powerful, but I think there’s a difference between bursts of protest driven by anger, and long-term movement building. Fear and anger can motivate people to show up and protest, but that could lead to burnout if political situation they are protesting doesn’t change the way they want it to overnight. Anger is ultimately demoralizing. If you want to sustain a political movement over the long-term then optimism is essential. It’s what will keep people from throwing up their hands and giving up.
Foran: Hillary Clinton may have failed to win over voters in the industrial midwest and the rust belt because she ran on a platform that suggested the status quo was working for America at a time when, as you note in your book, inequality has been rising for decades. What if an optimistic mentality hurts Democrats by alienating people who don’t feel optimistic about their own future?
Teixeira: I don’t think that Clinton’s problem, in terms of what caused her to lose the white working class, was that she was overly optimistic so much as that it was that she didn’t talk to these people, and didn’t act like she thought they were important. Nobody wants to be told they’re deplorable. You want to tell people that you understand your problems, and have a plan to help make life better. She actually had some great ideas about how people that live in those areas could be helped, but I don’t think she really conveyed that. I think Clinton thought she could basically get elected on the basis of “I’m not him,” without spending enough time making an optimistic case, and showing people she could deliver on that. That didn’t work.