Everybody’s got their own benchmark, their optimism set point. Take a big enough step back, see the big enough picture, and pieces fall into place: We’re going to be all right. In the late thirties, Jackson notes, “we had a Depression with 25 percent unemployment and World War II. Compared to that, 10 percent unemployment and a bunch of terrorists from mostly backward countries seem trivial.”
The refusal to subscribe to the “golden age” myth, if you think about it, is the fundamental difference between a progressive and a conservative. Conservative thought always posits a bygone halcyon era: Some manage to find it in Reagan’s eighties, some would rather return to the pre-boomer values of the fifties. A progressive, on the other hand, carries no such burden. The whole outlook is predicated on the idea that the best days are, in fact, ahead.
There may be no greater reason for optimism than the attitudes of young people. Sixty-five percent of college freshmen are in favor of gay marriage, compared with 39 percent of the general population, and that includes nearly 25 percent of the students who identified themselves as “far right.” Black students ages 15 to 18 are more upbeat about their future than their white peers by almost a factor of two. A Time for Kids survey of 1,000 U.S. children ages 9 to 13 found that 81.6 percent said life was “pretty good” or “great.” The next generation seems to embrace core American ideals—tolerance, pluralism, and, yes, optimism—more than any before it. Kenneth Jackson, for one, thinks those beliefs are justified. “If I could change places with somebody who’s 5 years old, I’d do it in a nanosecond,” he says. “I don’t think they’ll have no problems. But I think they’ll have a great life.”