Temperamentally, I’m an optimist, and have been for most of my life. On the personal side, I was born with a sense of “can do”—a belief that if you try hard enough and long enough you can overcome any obstacle. For a long time, this attitude proved a perfect partner to my political perspective. In politics, I’ve simply believed that the world was growing more just, that the lives of the great majority were steadily improving, even though the pace has often tried my patience. In my mind, setbacks have been temporary regressions. Over the long haul, I stood with those who proclaimed that “we will overcome.”
Buoyed by the extended civil rights movements for African Americans, women, LGBTQ’s, and people with disabilities, along with the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act, among other legislative victories, I came to believe with MLK that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” From the thousand foot perspective, I saw a strong, direct line between the Progressive Era to the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society, and the future.
In more recent years, though, and as I’ve aged, a pull towards skepticism and pessimism has challenged my natural inclinations. I’m not alone. I know few people who have sustained the faith, as it were. It’s not a matter of values. Most of us have held firm in that regard. But our belief that our ideals will be realized—or realized anywhere near as fully as we had hoped—that has waned.
You might say that we have achieved a “mature realism.” And that the growth of political moderation has gone hand in glove with our own perceived decline, as though the world was magically growing old with us.
We began to see greater significance in the long periods when social justice has taken a back seat to conservative doctrine, individualism, and corporate greed: during the Reagan, George HW Bush, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton presidencies, for instance. Even during the presidency of Barack Obama, conservative forces dominating the cabinet helped increase the gap between the rich and poor. And the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that unleashed unlimited flows of conservative financing into the political system tilted American society towards its own form of oligarchy.
We couldn’t help but notice how the assault on liberal democracy that has been rapidly taking hold throughout Europe, how the Chinese authoritarian system has successfully challenged American world hegemony, how a Russian dictator has, with some effect, declared “war” on our democratic processes, and how futile we have all been in the fight against environmental degradation.
Maybe the arc of the world doesn’t bend towards justice but follows endless historical cycles of optimistic striving and repressive reaction: democracy and totalitarianism; equality and class-bound societies; outward and innovative striving and defensive pulling in. Maybe all of these impulses are true and none ever gets to declare a final victory.
I’m not happy with this kind of “realism,” however convincing it may be at times. I wonder if it has more to do with old age, with my own declining powers than what is happening out there. And I despise the possibility that my days will end with a Trump presidency, a British Brexit, a Polish and Hungarian descent into modern incarnations of fascism. I hate the idea of a Hobbesian world in which our fear of our neighbors causes us to attack before we are attacked. All my dreams thrown on the rubbish heap of cruelty and mistrust, in the name of ‘real politic.’
So I live with a good deal of philosophical tension and search for ways to manage it. Here’s one way: as we age, some of us focus our eyes on the distant horizon and grow philosophical: “Oh well, that’s the way the world is.” This approach feels flat and uninspired. It’s not me. Here’s a second approach: some of us withdraw into an entirely personal universe: “Oh well, there’s nothing I can do to influence all that. And I’ll be gone within a decade or two. I’ll just pay attention to my personal life.” That has a comforting feeling and most of us adopt this approach to some extent. But, for me, it also borders on betrayal. I don’t buy the idea that we’ve earned our withdrawal. How could I give up on hopes and ideals that have animated me during my entire life; how could I retreat into a totally selfish universe?
There’s a third way. Throughout my life, when unsure, I have followed the time-tested adage: “Talk the talk until you can walk the walk.” Act as though the outcome you want is virtually inevitable and that will give you the strength to make is so. So we can look for signs of a better future in order to preserve some of our traditional optimism.
And a fourth way: According to Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, you must keep pushing the rock (of just causes) up the hill even if it keeps rolling down when you near the top. You persist. You hold out the possibility of success in order to feel true to yourself and your ideals. Trying, even in the face of almost hopeless causes—as the onslaught of Nazism and Communism may have seemed to Camus—is essential to maintaining our integrity. And, even more importantly, by holding the fort in times of crisis, you prepare for the next wave of idealists.
I think I may see that next wave on the horizon. In 2018, Millenials supplanted the Baby Boomers as the largest voting age group in the United States. They are the first post World War II generation to experience diminished economic and social prospects. Privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts for the rich have bitten deeply into public services, leaving pitted roads and ineffective public transportation, unaffordable child care, and a rapidly warming earth.
But the millenials seem to be fighting. They sing a progressive tale to pollsters: that the shortchanging of Black and Brown people must stop; gay people must have the right to marry; immigrants, who make our country stronger, must be supported not rejected; health care should be every citizen’s right; and climate change is the greatest threat to humankind.
I have been watching the generation’s young turks, people like Alexandria Octavia-Cortez and Pete Buttigieg as they challenge the current order and gather support among the Boomers, as well. I have no part of me wanting to modulate their message, as many pundits propose, in order to broaden their base. I think it’s possible that their values as well as their passion and commitment may turn out to be more convincing than moderation. I think they have a good chance of renewing a progressive wave aimed at fulfilling the ‘self evident’ truths that this country was built on.
As I age, I tell myself more and more to see the world as it is, not as I want it to be, yet here I am, excited once again, by a group of dreamers. But isn’t dreaming one of life’s real experiences? Isn’t the attempt to make the world better a real effort? The current progressive wave may not last forever—it won’t—but while it lasts it is as real and exciting as any other way of relating to the world. It makes me feel alive and worthwhile.