Sep. 6, 2016

Warburg: Optimism in a Pessimistic Time

Labor Day once marked both the eve of the new school year and the kick-off of the campaign season. It was a time of hope and renewal.

Why then are so many students and voters pessimistic today? Anxiety is palpable.

It seems this presidential contest has been going on for years. We have been bombarded by a drama that feels like Dynasty meets Survivor meets Lord of the Rings. That mash-up lurches from comedy to horror show to theatre of the absurd.

This will be a tough season for school teachers — and preachers, as well. A duty common to both callings is to inspire colleagues to virtuous action, to inspire hope.

Yet both major political parties have relied heavily on stoking dystopian fears. The central appeal now of both major party presidential candidates is their warning of a dark future if their opponent wins.

Little wonder Millennials feel cynical.

The irony is that things are actually better for many Americans. Empirical data (teachers call them ‘facts’) indicate we’ve had more than 70 straight months of job growth. Our industrial output has almost doubled since 1980. Our auto companies are stronger than ever, with record sales. Since 2009, the leading stock market measure has soared from 6,000 to over 18,000. Crime is way down. Millions more Americans have access to health care. Marriage rights for gay citizens have been secured. U.S. forces have decimated the leadership of Al Qaeda. Many of our troops are coming home.

In another era, Ronald Reagan would have called it “morning in America.”

Certainly there are challenges: addressing climate change, stagnant wages, criminal justice reform, cybersecurity and counterterrorism, infrastructure investment. Our social institutions, from public schools to mainstream media to our clergy, are in urgent need of repair. We must work relentlessly to further reduce racial divides.

The greatest of lurking dangers, however, may simply be cynicism. Cynicism is debilitating, “the enemy of positive change,” as the anti-hunger activist Billy Shore warns. “It discourages creative thinking; it destroys the belief change is possible and destroys the will to act.”

Inspiring citizens of all political persuasions to overcome that cynicism will be the focus of many discussions this season. For preachers and politicians alike, these might include appeals to common values: stronger communities, stronger extended families, asking for sacrifice to advance civic interests. For too long, our leaders have been reluctant to seek the selflessness required to make progress, whether in times of war or peace.

Americans also need to counter the pessimists, to remind them of how much progress we have made in combatting the Great Recession, prevailing in the Cold War, and increasing access for women and minorities. As an incurable optimist, a Baby Boomer who came of age during California’s “Wonder Years,” I readily point to opportunities for bipartisan progress. The proud old Republican Party will need to be reinvented after Nov. 8, offering unique possibilities for young conservatives. For Democrats, too, it will soon be time for younger voices to lead, for generational change and renewal.

Some deals are ripe for resolution. Americans want major infrastructure investments to renew our cities. Strong majorities want tax reform, to bring corporate profits home and increase wages. To protect our common inheritance, we urgently require a Manhattan Project approach to combatting the impact climate change is already having on places like Hampton Roads, Miami, New Orleans.

International developments offer promise. For the first time, a majority of the planet’s population has escaped poverty. Major diseases have been checked, global communications expanded. Advancing technologies have reduced reliance on back-breaking labor, brought greater transparency to governance, and challenged dictators to address societal needs.

Investor Warren Buffett echoes the president when he declares new American babies are “the luckiest crop in history.” Yet, sometimes context is needed. I tell students polishing their resumes while anxious about job prospects that my dad, then a skinny undergraduate, had to leave college twice for military service. He got to spend his junior year abroad interrogating Nazis as an Army WW II intelligence officer. When in 1945 he made it to Vienna, his mother’s hometown, none of her community had survived the Holocaust.

In the new century, most Americans have it easier. There should be no shame in being optimistic. Even as we together confront tough challenges in the coming seasons, there is every reason to believe our best years lie ahead.

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Garrett 102