US Optimism Remains—You Just Might Not Recognize It

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As a born-and-bred American, I’m glad to relay that optimism remains high here—despite what you might have heard or how things might look.

For people who don’t know the US and Americans well, I should clarify what makes American optimism:

US optimism is inherently contentious.  Americans routinely  embrace the role of “devil’s advocate” in a discussion, representing the opposing viewpoint as a way to stimulate thoughtfulness, test the hypothesis, or show interest in the issue.  We argue almost routinely, so much so that the actual act of arguing rarely carries the negative impact that observers might perceive.

And we carry this contentious optimism through most political discussions, election cycles and presidential selections.  Energetic argument is the grease that lubricates the machine: often messy, sometimes overly slick or seemingly inconsequential.  Regardless of political affiliation, we value our candidates for their abilities to stand up to the scrutiny, to defend themselves and their ideas as they pitch their versions of positive change and a better future.  Our optimism is contentious.

And our optimism is conciliatory.  Americans revel in political mythologies about friendships between political enemies (Lincoln’s “team of rivals,” the Ronald Reagan/Tip O’Neill friendship, the charitable synergy between President Clinton, Bob Dole and both Presidents Bush).  And, more recently, the trend in US politics seems to be shifting from ideological stalemates toward compromise and progress—if our politicians (on both sides) would only listen.

Similarly, the Occupy Wall Street movements will almost certainly generate ultimately positive, collaborative, and lingering change—not as a clear victory for either side but, again, as a result of the public argument.  Then the movement will wind down: raising some issues, and some ire, but ultimately framing itself mostly within animated debate and eventual resolution.

I’m going to go way out on a limb on this next point, because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with all the collateral events, split our country and much of the world.  American used those calamities to fuel two wars.  Many Americans supported those military efforts because they felt the US would do some good; others opposed those same efforts because they could see no long-term good.  Optimism, in its absence or abundance, is what split the issue for us.  Naiveté?  Possibly.  But optimism nonetheless.

Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, most Americans recall that time as tragedy and triumph as we mourn the dead at the same time that we celebrate the ‘everyday’ heroes: the passengers on Flight 93 who acted to crash their own plane, the firemen, police, and passers-by who similarly chose to step in to help out, the office workers who slowed their own escape as they carried strangers down the smoke-filled stairs of one of the World Trade towers, and regular folk in Shanksville, Pennsylvania (where Flight 93 crashed) who tended to the crash site with the reverence it deserved but without any fanfare, celebrity or expectation of fame or fortune.  Our optimism comes from the heroism of average people.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I, and my fellow Americans, know that we face big problems that need serious attention.  We are not the oblivious or ignorant rubes that much of the rest of the world thinks we are.  But we do approach problems with hopefulness, because US optimism is entrepreneurial: we believe we can work our way out of our problems.

Look at this current economic crisis.  In the US we bickered and groaned; our legislators pontificated but accomplished little; the Obama Administration’s efforts very likely averted even deeper, darker crises, but Americans value the presence of progress (optimism) much more highly than the absence of regress (fatalism), so credit for those crises averted comes only grudgingly.   Europeans acted seemingly more decidedly: reconsidering currency alliances, enacting austerity measures, taking to the streets in protests that went farther out of control than anything the Occupy advocates have yet contrived.  But, uh, after all, the situation in Europe is currently no better than in the US.  European pragmatism and immediacy have differed not at all, in terms of impact, from American shoe-shuffling.

Because our optimism is economic.  Some will say we’ve simply outsourced the darker elements of our economy (the sweat-shops and tenements, the pollution and oppression) just like we outsourced so many jobs.  The US is barely 2 generations from those polluted, sweat-shop, oppressive stages ourselves—and time moves much more quickly along those lines now.  But Americans believe, because we’ve lived this dream over generations, that economic power is the answer to all the world’s ills.

Ask the Chinese laborers currently clamouring for increased wages and standards of living.  Or ask the overwhelmingly female and third-world recipients of micro-loans (admittedly not an American idea) about how much more control they have over their lives now that they command the “home economics” in a whole different sense of the phrase.  Or ask the American workers in textiles, manufacturing, banking and a plethora of other industries, workers who have recently found work as jobs come back, now insourced, not even a decade after some of them left.   Our optimism is entrepreneurial.

Our optimism might seem hypocritical but isn’t.  Some see our founding credo, borne in the Declaration of Independence—that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights—as, at best, inaccurate and, at worst, delusional.  Abraham Lincoln, President during our Civil War—our country at its most contentious—wrote about “the better angels of our nature,” the same theme that Martin Luther King Jr. echoed in the next century in his famous “Dream” speech: that we must always strive to be better than we are.   Americans have always been among the most charitable people on Earth because our optimism is individualistic and aspirational, and sometimes those individual aspirations coalesce incredibly positively.

And our optimism is hopeful and time-tested.  Americans love to frame events as the ‘best/worst ___ since ___’ (the coldest winter since 1930, the largest job loss since 1979, the rainiest Wednesday since records began, the most precipitous financial collapse since the Great Depression), and we do this as a way of saying ‘things have been worse. . . so things will get better.’  Our optimism is historical and hopeful, and Americans continue to believe, in spite of the surveys to the contrary, that the future will turn out well.

But our optimism is sometimes blind and often short-sighted: our infrastructure needs work and our pre-college educational systems are teetering on the edge of ineffectiveness. We have many citizens who are out of work or otherwise severely struggling, we have a debt that seems insurmountable, and a growing/aging/diversifying population that requires attention, even care, that we hadn’t considered.

But we’ve been in all of these situations before: we’ve had harsher economic crises, larger threats, vaster disparities between wealthy and poor, faster influxes of immigrants, fewer resources, higher debts, more onerous taxes, fewer jobs, worse roads and schools and systems, and politicians who make the current crop look downright industrious.  And we overcame, because our optimism empowers innovation.

And we will overcome again.  We’ll fight first, because our optimism is contentious, but we’ll overcome because our optimism is among our greatest strengths, our greatest economic, entrepreneurial, time-tested, hopeful, individualistic, innovative, naïve, blind, aspirational, heroic, charitable, accusational, conciliatory, collegial and contentious strength.

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