Optimism and pessimism

Everyone who engages in politics, or who thinks about public policy, wants to believe that history is on their side. For leftists, such a belief comes with the territory. They retain the view of Marx, lifted in part from Hegel, that history is steadily progressing on a predetermined path towards their vision of the future. That’s why, when the outcome of an election suggests otherwise, left-liberals tend to lash out at both the opposition and the electorate (“What’s the matter with Kansas?”) with more than a little hysteria.

By contrast, conservatives traditionally are pessimistic. To be sure, Ronald Reagan provided the movement with a needed coat of optimism. But when elections turn out badly, that coat tends to wash away for a while, leaving some conservatives with a sense that, as much as they wish it were otherwise, history may very well not be on our side. Because this sense is hardly alien to most conservatives — as it is to most leftists — the prevailing mood among some, at least in the short term, is sorrow, not anger.

Eventually, however, the optimistic strand of conservatism reasserts itself, insisting on its place as a roughly co-equal partner in the movement. And it is the tension between the two strands — optimistic and pessimistic — that produces an intellectually serious mindset that mature, stable adults typically find more persuasive than the crude, unbridled type of historicism that characterizes left-liberal thinking.

Guy de Maupassant ends his great novel “Une Vie” with the statement “Life is never as good or as bad as one thinks.” Conservatives should understand that in politics, things are rarely as good or as bad as one thinks in the aftermath of an election.


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