The Case Against Optimism
It’s a progressive disease that ends in disappointment, or worse.

Representative Jack Kemp and President Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1984 (The Reagan Library)


John O’Sullivan

Recently I argued that a policy’s likely results matter more than whether it is modern, progressive, optimistic, “sound,” or imbued with some other irresistible cultural flavor. But I have a particular distaste for optimism, which justifies a separate vivisection. Also, as it happens, optimism has suddenly become topical again. Paul Ryan worked for the late Jack Kemp for two years and remains his admirer, and Jack was a great salesman for optimism.

Now, Jack was a fine man and an inspiring leader who had many achievements to his credit, above all his crusade for lower marginal tax rates. That helped to shape Reaganomics and so to revive America. Nothing in this argument should be interpreted as an attack on him in any respect other than his perverse taste in psychological dispositions. But the brute fact, from which there can be no getting away, is that he became justifiably identified in the public mind as a kind of vice president in charge of optimism, or, as Carlyle said of Richard Cobden, as “an inspired bagman who believes in his calico millennium.”

Some observers plainly hope that Ryan and Romney will follow in Kemp’s footsteps. I doubt this will happen, because the main duty of Republicans in this campaign is to warn of the looming economic, fiscal, and social problems that will face America no matter who wins in November. To be sure, Republicans must balance this warning against a rational hope for a better future under superior policies, but even then they cannot hint that their election alone will guarantee success. Harsh medicine, persistently applied, will be necessary for success that must be honestly described in current conditions as “ultimate.” But just in case Romney and Ryan are tempted to indulge in the bafflegab of optimism, here’s the case against it.

Optimism, like pessimism, is a disposition, not a faith or philosophy. In politics it predisposes its owner (“host” may be the better word) to follow one course of action rather than another, irrespective of its merits. Someone who has his optimism under control will ensure that he subjects this preference to reasoned criticism and contrasts it with the available evidence. But the sad psychological fact is that optimism is a disease that is progressive (in both senses) and that the optimist once launched finds it very hard to rein in his limitless confidence. Two such raving optimists were Tony Blair (except on the one topic of radical Islam) and Gordon Brown (who has advanced degrees in the economics of optimism). The results you see in Britain and Iraq.

To be sure, pessimism is open to many of the same objections as optimism. Of the two, however, it is probably the better, if only barely. A mistaken policy rooted in optimism not only is a disaster in the making, but will probably be persisted in long after its demerits are obvious. A mistaken policy rooted in pessimism will be cautiously implemented and ended more quickly. That is why optimists are more likely to be disappointed by events, pessimists to be relieved by them. If you want examples of a policy rooted firmly in optimism, the best ones are probably U.S. immigration policy since the 1965 Immigration Act, and British immigration policy under Blair and Brown. It’s not necessary to say more than that. The case argues itself.

Despite all the guff written about him, Reagan was not an optimist. He was a realist who believed in the virtue of hope (which is quite another thing — see below). Realism is a combination of prudence and hope. Realists believe that they can solve problems and win battles, but only by evaluating the dangers accurately and proposing adequate responses to them. Reagan expressed great faith in the future of the American people, but he also warned that their grandchildren might lose that future if the present generation did not defend the U.S. Constitution and traditional liberties. He warned eloquently against the Soviet threat, but instead of looking on the bright side and leaving matters to chance, he drove through — against strong political and media opposition — tough policies on foreign policy and defense. There was an optimistic policy toward Soviet Communism in those years. It was the policy conducted by Jimmy Carter right up to and (such is the mesmeric power of optimism) long after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

But surely optimism is necessary to encourage voters, people, and nations? Not in the least, even though political consultants seem to think so. If the political and economic prospects facing the nation really are bright, then realism does all that is needed. It encourages people to the extent justified — and no further. So it does not persuade them to lower the national defenses or spend their IRAs on risky real-estate ventures or second vacations. When grave dangers threaten, however, optimism misleads those who have not grasped the grim facts, and it grates on those who have. Leaders who employ it undermine themselves — after a time lag with the first set of people, and all at once with the second. Eventually everyone realizes they have not grasped just how serious the situation is.

As it happens, I once had the opportunity to argue this point to Jack Kemp himself over dinner in Washington. My best argument that night was that “the most optimistic speech in the English language begins with the words ‘I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’” Those words gave people hope because they persuaded them that Churchill, unlike the optimistic Chamberlain, was aware of the gravity of Britain’s plight in 1940. They were grim to hear, but because they offered a realistic prospect of ultimate victory, they were inspiring, too. An upbeat military assessment would have had a defeatist effect.

I don’t think I convinced Jack that night. He remained attached to a stance of optimism in politics. Much more important, however, throughout his illness until his untimely death, Jack was sustained by hope. Hope is a virtue. It tells us to do our best and rely on God for the rest. But it makes no promises that we will achieve our aspirations in this world. Given the gyrations of fortune and the vanity of human wishes, that is realistic rather than optimistic advice. To be an optimist is in the end to be disappointed.

John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.