Pessimism and Optimism in American Culture

Norman_Vincent_Peale_NYWTS

Norman Vincent Peale, Author of The Power of Positive Thinking

Over at The New Republic, senior editor Jeet Heer reflects on the meaning of optimism and pessimism in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and Barack Obama, the theology of Norman Vincent Peale, and the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Here is a taste of his piece: “The Power of Negative Thinking”:

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, during his long imprisonment under Benito Mussolini’s regime, famously wrote, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” In an American context, this combination can be found most potently in Abraham Lincoln, whose very awareness of the enormity of the problem of slavery pushed him toward the radical solution of abolition. There are few more negative national appraisals than Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, where he said, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Traditionally, modern politicians shy away from such a dismal portrait of their own country, for fear of furthering polarizing the nation and thereby making governance more difficult. Yet as both Trump and Bernie Sanders proved in 2016, pessimism is an effective mobilizing tool because it raises the stakes of an election, bolstering the case for risk-taking change. If such a case proved convincing for Trump in the waning days of a popular presidency and steadily improving economy, then surely it would be even more convincing under a historically unpopular president who is undoing efforts to fight climate change, proposing tax cuts for the rich, sabotaging health care for the poor, demonizing non-white people, monetizing his presidency, and posing an existential threat to American democracy itself.

Trump’s curious mixture of pessimism and optimism might be rooted in the flimsy self-help gospel of Positive Thinking, but it would be a mistake to confuse the message with the messenger. There is carnage in America indeed, even if it’s largely not the carnage that Trump claimed. The problem is that the solution he offered—his supposed skills as a deal maker—was quack medicine. But an accomplished politician could, as Trump did, appeal to suffering Americans while also selling a remedy that would, unlike Trump’s, actually address their troubles. In other words, the risk for Democrats lies not in preaching such a self-serving gospel. The real risk would be to dismiss Trump’s effective rhetoric simply because he failed to deliver on it.

Read the entire piece here.