In Defense of American Optimism

AUSTIN, TX - APRIL 10:  U.S. President Barack Obama gives the keynote speech on the third day of the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library April 10, 2014 in Austin, Texas. The summit marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act legislation. (Photo by Ricardo Brazziell-Pool/Getty Images)
RBB Obama Civil Rights 10 Photo: Ricardo Brazziell-Pool/Getty Images

A few months ago, President Obama delivered a tribute to Lyndon Johnson that was also a tribute to his optimistic vision about American history. Obama reminded his audience that the triumph of justice was not easy, continuous, or automatic. “[W]e know we cannot be complacent,” he warned, “For history travels not only forwards; history can travel backwards, history can travel sideways.” This was Obama’s caveat to his main point, which is that, for all the struggle and imperfection and reversals and injustice that remained, over the long haul, moral improvement has carried the day:

“Still, the story of America is a story of progress. However slow, however incomplete, however harshly challenged at each point on our journey, however flawed our leaders, however many times we have to take a quarter of a loaf or half a loaf — the story of America is a story of progress.”

Obama’s optimistic disposition toward American history is one I share. But it’s also something that has divided liberals for a long time, and the division, ironically, has deepened during, and because of, Obama’s presidency. Indeed, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Elias Isquith, two writers who occupy the left-wing side of the divide, quoted Obama’s warning about how history can move sideways or backwards as if it were his central point, rather than the caveat.

The last few weeks, I’ve read What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe, an engrossing history of the United States from 1815 through 1848. This is a period known — to the extent that Americans remember much about it at all — as “the Age of Jackson,” but Howe argues that this label is a mistake. America was not so much unified by Jackson as it was polarized in a way (this is my view superimposed on Howe’s history) we would find highly recognizable today. America was split, geographically and sociologically: Red America favored militaristic foreign policy, the maintenance of existing racial and social hierarchy, and fiercely opposed big government; Blue America favored a more restrained foreign policy, a more amicable treatment of racial minorities, and activist government support for economic growth.

The Jacksonians favored the gold standard and believed the Constitution prohibited the federal government from any program not specifically delineated. “I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for making the Federal Government the great almoner of public charity,” declared Zachary Taylor, in terms reminiscent of modern conservative objections to the individual mandate. Blue America was more culturally effete and enamored of public education; Red America suspicious of centralization and steeped in a culture of violence.

Blue America, then as now, was centered in the Northeast and what we now call the upper Midwest, and represented by the Whigs. Red America, then as now, was centered in the South and represented by the Democrats. Howe’s provocative thesis is that, even though the Whigs famously disappeared, their philosophical vision is the one that eventually prevailed. He explains how a series of accidents (like the death of William Henry Harrison), blunders, and close-run events destroyed the Whigs. The pattern of long-run triumph and short-run debacle can be seen over and over throughout the period.

Social and economic progress poked along at a torpid pace, and was replete with infuriating half-measures. The notion of national emancipation was far too radical to gain any practical traction, and the liberals of the time focused on attainable victories. In 1817, the state of New York banned slavery, but emancipation would not take effect until 1827, so as to mitigate the hardship felt by slave owners. This was the sort of compromise that makes bargaining away the public option look rather tame. It also created a perverse incentive for slave owners, sitting upon assets whose value would suddenly disappear, to sell their slaves to states where slavery would remain legal. (This was formally illegal, but slave holders used smugglers to circumvent the ban.) Even the incremental triumphs were punctuated by setbacks. The Jacksonian post office banned the mailing of any anti-slavery tracts into the South; several states eliminated the right to vote and other civil liberties for their free black citizens. History often moved backwards.

The Erie Canal is one of the products of the era whose reputation has survived. It was hardly the subject of easy consensus. After it failed to attract federal support on Constitutional grounds, New York governor DeWitt Clinton had it built over determined opposition. Opponents called it “Clinton’s big ditch,” Thomas Jefferson deemed the project “madness,” and both workers and businessmen opposed it for fear of higher taxes. The canal’s successful operation eventually blunted the criticism, but its construction and enactment were surely experienced by contemporaries, like the passage of Obamacare, as a controversy at best and a debacle at worst.

By the conclusion of Howe’s history, the Whigs are nearing extinction and the slave states have grown even more fanatical. It would have been difficult for a modern liberal living at the time to discern a pattern of progress over the previous three decades. And yet currents of history still flowed beneath the surface. By 1848, it was possible for feminists to gather in Seneca Falls and call for equal rights. Their manifesto mimicked the Declaration of Independence — “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal” — in a long pattern of bringing the reality of America in line with the idealized version. A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. would do the same.

Obama has a single message he passes on to the young people who work in his administration. Its core is historical optimism:

"We get White House interns to come in and they work at the White House, and they're there for six months, and then I usually speak to them at the end of six months. And I always tell them that despite how hard sometimes the world seems to be, and all you see on television is war and conflict and poverty and violence, the truth is that if you had to choose when to be born, not knowing where or who you would be, in all of human history, now would be the time. Because the world is less violent, it is healthier, it is wealthier, it is more tolerant and it offers more opportunity than any time in human history for more people than any time in human history."

Activists often resist this sort of thing as happy-talk; they fear it will breed complacency, or justify existing ills. I believe the evidence shows it does neither, that confidence breeds the courage necessary to move forward. But I also believe, utility aside, that optimism is analytically sound. Optimism is the most fundamental truth of American history.