The Common Good

Is Democratic Optimism Grounded in Reality?

I’m a fan of TIME Magazine. It offers concise, intelligent summaries and opinions on the news that help keep me up with current events. They had an interesting article in the last few weeks about the factors that seem to affect a political party’s election results in the upcoming cycle. From their findings, it’s the party perceived to be most optimistic about the nation’s future that tends to come out on top. A fascinating bit of psychology, if not necessarily scientifically rigorous in its conclusions.

And then, in the most recent issue, there’s a pages-long piece by Bill Clinton called “The Case for Optimism,” which outlined five reasons to look ahead with hope toward our collective future. Coincidence? Maybe. But the timing of the two pieces, particularly only weeks out from a presidential election, seems more than a little bit opportunistic.

Call me cynical, but never let it be said that I’m above holding the Democrats’ feet to the fire when they pander. Yes, both parties do it, but it seems to me it’s most effective when it’s a little less in-your-face about it. President Obama rode a tide of optimism into the White House four years ago, only to watch his support erode after the reality didn’t live up to the speeches in many cases. But we wanted to hear it, and it worked. So it’s no surprise they’re giving it another go-round.

But are there grounds for such high hopes? Let’s consider a few elements of our daily life for some perspective:

The Economy: Yes, we seem to have averted a major economic meltdown that could have led to a second Great Depression, and the U.S. auto industry was pulled back from the precipice of self-destruction. Consumer optimism is up, unemployment is (sort of) down, and stock markets continue to creep upward, if unreasonably so. So a case could be made for some rosiness in our economic outlook.

But the unemployment rate is still above 8 percent and although many companies are cash-rich, they’re sitting on the piles of green for fear of another reversal of fortune in the near future. The dollar is relatively weak by international standards, Europe still is searching half-blind for a way to avoid continental catastrophe and China currently faces at least a decade of challenges that, if not properly addressed, could drag the global economy back down to 2008 levels, or maybe worse.

If there’s one thing affected more by psychology than anything else, it’s probably the economy. Tell people things are looking good, and they tend to spend more. Companies loosen their purse strings, in theory at least, and investors take some risks they might have otherwise avoided. It’s a bit of cognitive dissonance that might actually live into its own hype, but it’s a tough sell after several years of financial bumps and bruises for most of us. At some point the rhetoric rings hollow, losing its potency to affect any real change.

The Middle East: Bin Laden is dead, Al Qaida is weaker than it has been in many years, and the Arab Spring welcomed a democratic wave across the region that many hailed as the dawn of a new era. But as we’ve seen in countries like Iraq, replacing an iron-fisted dictatorship with a green and highly splintered democracy can lead to violent instability. Though it would be convenient to draw a straight line from the recent attacks and riots to the recent “Innocence of Muslims” video, it’s not as simple as that. The fractious nature of the political environments in those countries, absent of a strong military led by a tyrant, means that it takes relatively little to cause things to boil over.

It’s hard to imagine that someone like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would welcome an Arab Spring, but such seismic shifts in the region may feed into his agenda to push back against the West in their support of Israel, and he may find more cohorts who support his efforts to militarize at a nuclear level.

Human Rights: Obama has scored high marks for his handling of international relations, largely because he has taken more of a centrist approach than many of his left-leaning advocates would prefer. Our government has applauded the Arab Spring from the sidelines, with occasional help offered to rebel groups, and we continue to pour billions into a better quality of life for others who may never see American soil.

But when it comes to immigration reform, we’ve fallen woefully short. Yes, the “politics of no” propagated right of the aisle has been effective in keeping much from getting done, but a strong President finds away to move ahead regardless, and it could be argued that the President has put immigration rights on hold until 2013 or later. The military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was struck down, yet Obama continues to “evolve” on his views regarding marriage equality. And lest we forget, the detention center at Guantanamo Bay still exists, despite fervent promises that it would be shut down.

All of this aside, I tend to think the sense of optimism – or lack of it – centers much closer to home than such far-flung issues. The average voter will assess their lives come November and, based on their own personal criteria, they’ll answer the question: am I better off now than I was four years ago?

That, more than anything, will determine how those who may yet be undecided will vote on Election Day.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

Think positive illustration: Anson0618 / Shutterstock.com

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