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One thing about America that endlessly fascinates me is the role that optimism has played in its history.
Optimism is America’s defining trait, and the ultimate source of its strength. By charting optimism’s ebbs and flows, we can perhaps say something about America in the world, and hazard a guess or two as to where things might be heading in the wake of four years of Trump. We might even, cautiously, allow ourselves some optimism as we do so.
(But no, not too much. Let’s not get carried away…)
I would not be the first or last person to observe that America is an unsettled place, always relentlessly inventing the future rather than brooding about what has passed. Its restless creativity confers massive advantages for competing with rivals. The dynamism of its economy is arguably its greatest weapon. Even as the Chinese colossus begins to stir, and despite the messiness of its handling of COVID-19, it still feels foolish not to bet on America when it comes to innovation and prosperity.
And then there’s the optimism of American politicians, the other ineffable secret of its success. The Cold War could not have been won any other way. Though Kennan’s dark vision of containment set the tone for the next forty years, Truman’s belief in the audacious Marshall Plan gave moral shape to the conflict. Nixon confounded his own establishment by daring to open to China, thus upending a grim global power balance that was starting to ossify. Reagan dreamed out loud of missile shields, inspiring panic among a sclerotic Soviet nomenklatura. But he also had the courage to reach out to a young reform-minded leader when he finally appeared.
These twinned tendencies—economic dynamism born of an obsessive future-mindedness, and a kind of idealistic can-do optimism that guides American politicians’ actions—seem to have worked wonders for the United States throughout the length of the short twentieth century, and arguably were deadly effective even sooner (as Otto von Bismarck himself is said to have recognized). Even after the Cold War ended, American can-doism kept shaping the world. Colin Powell was apparently fond of noting that “optimism is a force-multiplier,” presumably even during the first Gulf War. But ever since the early 2000s, more and more Americans have started to question themselves.
The Cold War, of course, was not a straight-line march to victory. Self-doubt, self-loathing, and self-criticism reached its peak during Vietnam, and arguably never left America’s bloodstream since. (Not that it wasn’t resisted. In a striking demonstration of resilient American optimism and self-confidence, Nixon, two years before his fateful trip to Beijing, and a year into his secret bombing of Cambodia, confronted activists in the middle of the night at the Lincoln Memorial. “I just hope your opposition doesn’t turn into a blind hatred of the country,” he told his bewildered, blinking audience of disheveled peaceniks shortly before the sun rose over the Mall. “Remember, this is a great country, with all of its faults.”)
But the comeuppances of the 2000s seem to have been qualitatively different, each much less painful in isolation, but in total amounting to a serious shock to American self-assuredness. An invisible and comparatively powerless terror network succeeded in bloodying America’s face, and provoked it, mastodon-like, into the tar pits of endless insurgency warfare. Still the largest beast on earth, America grew fatigued as it thrashed about and lacerated itself. Meanwhile the world’s smaller and less powerful animals looked on—America’s allies bemused and increasingly horrified, others like Russia and China with growing avarice and glee.
The 2008 financial crisis, not Donald Trump, was the crowning blow to lasting American prestige. The American-built and American-led world order visibly lost its sheen thereafter, all the more so when it became clear that China’s rise was gathering steam without China itself showing signs of becoming “more American”. Inchoate doubts that kept some American critics awake took fuller shape. Post-Cold War triumphalism was a clear picture of hubris. Claims that certain values applied universally took on the ring of empty catechism rather than crusading battle cry. And though American economic advantage, with its incomparable capacity for innovation, remained largely intact, the race itself started to feel futile. China was threatening an endless marathon. Was the exertion, and the real human cost of endless creative destruction, even worth it?
I’ve made the case elsewhere, years ago, that the real rupture with what came before happened under Obama and not Trump. And indeed, for all their stark differences, the two presidents were channeling the same growing disaffection among their voters with how things had gone. Obama (optimistically!) argued that since history was on America’s side, America could afford to do less in the world. But when history failed to bear out Obama’s prophecy in the immediate term, Trump followed and channeled American frustration and rage outwards, with the country thrashing about yet again on the world stage.
Biden ran as a repudiation of Trump himself, and of dark, nihilistic Trumpism as a guiding sensibility. “Build Back Better” is an expression of the American can-do spirit, and an exhortation to invent the future anew. It’s a call to optimism above all else, the kind of optimism that won the Cold War. It’s an appeal to its force-multiplier nature, an affirmation that a heartfelt belief in positive-sum outcomes can in fact build a better world. But the question lingers: can it, though? Really?
Reagan managed to restore vitality in the shadow of the pervasive malaise of the 1970s, but he did so railing against what was by that point a hollowed-out enemy. What if the Soviets hadn’t stumbled? What if they had managed to reform their way to economic modernity, and if the dead weight of a previously impoverished rural population was overnight transformed into an engine of prosperity and growth? Would Reagan’s sunny optimism ultimately yield to the demons Vietnam had unleashed if it met a hard setback before 1988?
It’s impossible to know. And should Biden manage to turn things around, we’ll still be far short of having undertaken anything approaching a real experiment. But if there’s hope to be had, it’s to be found in the belief that the power of positive thinking is real—that our salvation is optimism itself.
After all, we’ve tried the alternative, and it doesn’t seem to have worked…