Magazine article The American Prospect

The Moral Equivalent of Optimism

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Moral Equivalent of Optimism

Article excerpt

You may have noticed a recurring theme in this column: that there is a set of assumptions about political possibilities that date from the late 1970s and have led to the timidity of more recent liberal politics--and that are overdue for questioning.

Here's another: An unfinished challenge from the late 1970s involves the question of how to create a meaningful and successful politics suitable to what then-California Gov. Jerry Brown called "the era of limits." In that first moment when the U.S. confronted the finitude both of fossil fuels and of America's postwar economic hegemony, Brown and Jimmy Carter each sized up the challenge and took a feeble swing at it--Carter with his inaccurately labeled 1979 "Malaise Speech," and Brown with a spacey politics derived in part from E.F. Schumacher's book, Small is Beautiful. Carter's speech did not stem the disintegration of his administration, and Ronald Reagan's victory the next year has been viewed ever since as proof that optimism is always a winning formula. Successful liberal politicos since 1980 have sought to avoid the Carter trap and to follow instead the sunny Reaganite path, albeit to another destination.

But Carter and Brown weren't selling the eat-your-spinach politics of, say, Paul Tsongas' dreary 1992 focus on the deficit and entitlements. Rather, Carter was attempting--as in the 1977 speech in which, quoting William James, Carter called for "the moral equivalent of war, except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy"--to recapture a politics in which a deep commitment to national purpose would be a unifying cause. Carter combined John F. Kennedy's call to peacetime service with the aspirational language for which that first Kennedy inaugural is remembered.

Reagan, the easy optimist, got lucky. The energy crisis faded, and the economy rebounded in time for his "Morning in America" re-election in 1984. But here we are again, with energy and climate change at the front of the agenda and unlikely to go away, with the deindustrialization of the economy that began in the 1970s now nearly complete, and, instead of 52 hostages, with 169,000 U.S. troops stuck in a Middle Eastern country with no easy way out. If ever we needed a robust politics of national commitment and shared sacrifice, it is now.

Meanwhile, the political right has descended into double caricature, torn between a millenarian pessimism in which "people who want to kill us" lurk around every corner (for them, the only moral equivalent of war is war itself), and a cockeyed, vacuous attempt to reincarnate Reagan's boosterism. …

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