As I started reading this Joe Klein column, I kept expecting him to start saying that Obama’s “patriotism problem” was one of perception, and that Obama was being falsely characterised by his enemies obsessed with flag pins and demonstrative hand-over-heart enthusiasm. Klein could then go on to describe how Obama’s foes were crafting a narrative out of meaningless, isolated incidents and making use of Wright, Obama’s wife and the rest to portray the candidate in the worst light. Instead, Klein basically agrees that Obama seems to be insufficiently patriotic, or at least doesn’t make enough of a show of it:
This is a chronic disease among Democrats, who tend to talk more about what’s wrong with America than what’s right. When Ronald Reagan touted “Morning in America” in the 1980s, Dick Gephardt famously countered that it was near midnight “and getting darker all the time.” This is ironic and weirdly self-defeating, since the liberal message of national improvement is profoundly more optimistic, and patriotic, than the innate conservative pessimism about the perfectibility of human nature. Obama’s hopemongering is about as American as a message can get — although, in the end, it is mostly about our ability to transcend our imperfections rather than the effortless brilliance of our diversity, informality and freedom-propelled creativity.
I agree that it seems ironic that self-described conservatives act like optimistic liberals, and liberals often appear to play the role of the dour pessimist, but this misses the point that everyone involved in the debate peddles optimism to some degree. (It is one of my long-running complaints against many mainstream Republicans and conservatives, typified by Limbaugh, that they portray optimism as some kind of conservative view, when it is one of the least conservative things in the world.) Suitably pessimistic conservatives may point to structures in the world or in human nature and say, “This cannot be fixed; this is just the way things are in this world.” The liberal optimist will point to various problems and complain that they haven’t been solved; he will lament the “crisis” in this or that part of the country, and demand that something be done, because he fundamentally believes that virtually every problem can be solved. So the liberal’s rhetoric comes across as “negative,” because it is critical of existing flaws in a given system, but it is anything but pessimistic.
Conservatives assume, or should assume, that some “problems” have no solution, and so tend to be less interested in worrying about things that they don’t think can be fixed anyway. Because liberals tend to believe that things can be significantly improved, if not necessarily perfected, they are constantly busy alerting everyone to all the things that could be made better. This constant obsession with improvement may have something to do with these reports of the greater average unhappiness of liberals. Meliorism seems not to improve one’s mood. I should note that The Economist article makes the same errors of associating satisfaction with your quality of life or contentment with the status quo with optimism, when they really have nothing to do with each other. Optimism is not a belief that your life is good or that contemporary society is fair and decent (the latter sentiment is extremely common among conservatives, and frequently absent among liberals); it is a belief that all things will perpetually get better over time. There may be something to the idea perceiving deep structural inequalities in society contributes to a feeling of powerlessness, which probably could be depressing, but on the whole most liberals assume that even deep structural problems can be changed through government action. I would guess that liberals tend to be more unhappy because they are certain that significant improvement (however they define that) is possible, but they find themselves continually thwarted and frustrated. To the extent that most conservatives are not activists and are not striving to change much of anything, the potential for this frustration is not nearly as great.
Certainly, there is something a bit odd about accusing Obama of any kind of pessimism, but you hear this often enough from Obama’s mainstream Republican critics. He and his wife are just so negative, they will say. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of the man’s campaign is so overflowing with great expectations for the future that it threatens to drown us all in a flash flood of hope. If Obama’s aides understand that the Wright controversy was mostly about the pastor’s “anti-Americanism,” they have hit on the heart of the problem. But Democrats don’t want to get into a race to see which candidate can be more cloyingly Americanist. McCain will win that competition, and it won’t be that close. That’s why Obama has to steer clear of clumsy Americanist pandering (think John “Reporting For Duty” Kerry) while also avoiding the pitfalls set out for him by his own supporters that he is the personification of globalised America.