Default Day looming, partisans right and left are in ill humor over the prospect of a grand, bipartisan budget deal. They’re right to grumble. The real debt ceiling isn’t measured by a number on a piece of legislation, but by the faith and credit of the American people in our two great political myths.
The myth of liberalism tells a fable about human history. Politics, according to this myth, is the effort to orient us away from the past and toward the future. Liberalism tells us that the sweeping changes which set the modern era in motion rendered concepts like hierarchy, nobility and authority not just obsolete but inconceivable. Fully and cleanly broken off from the bygone era before us, we endeavor to win the future because we already lost the past.
The myth of conservatism rejects this binary framework. But it too relies on a fable of history. The purpose of politics, according to the conservative myth, is to preserve the past without foreclosing the future. Even when the ways of old have long since dropped out of our real-world experience, they persist, perhaps just as long, in memory. Even when we’ve temporarily misplaced our inheritance, we’re always able to recover it.
Americans are so used to participating in partisan warfare waged along these lines that a strange convergence between both myths now prevents most people from envisioning a sea change in our politics as anything other than a fantasy. Despite their bitter acrimony and moral certitude, liberals and conservatives almost universally agree that our national capability to pursue happiness — a.k.a. the American Dream — is dependent on an optimistic worldview.
Anyone who advocates a different mode of thinking is tarred for the crime of pessimism. And anyone who dares to go further — wondering, for instance, if the real-world conditions of possibility for contemporary American optimism are beginning to disappear — is denounced for the sin of declinism.
Nonetheless, it is entirely possible that the conservative myth is correct in describing a long, gradual transition between past and future — but dead wrong in assuring Americans that this transition period is a golden age that can forever be maintained with the right attitude and the right votes. And the liberal myth may yet prove correct in claiming that the world of the future will be forever closed off to the ancient past — while failing massively to realize that this future world would be a tragedy, deprived of the resources for any happiness recognizably our own.
Alexis de Tocqueville harbored suspicions like these. As the old order collapsed in the wake of the French Revolution, people worried that the rise of democracy meant “new societies” would “change shape daily.” Yet Tocqueville feared
that they will end up by being too unalterably fixed with the same institutions, prejudices, and mores, so that mankind will stop progressing and will dig itself in. I fear that the mind may keep folding itself up in a narrower compass forever without producing new ideas, that men will wear themselves out in trivial, lonely, futile activity, and that for all its constant agitation human will make no advance.
It is hard to find a better gloss on our oft-repeated phrase that “politics is broken.”
But consider the irony that both strains of liberal and conservative optimism are working together to entrench us ever deeper in an establishmentarian orthodoxy that impedes our pursuit of happiness.
“Just a little bigger brains and bigger hearts at the top,” the left insists with a smile. “And just a little more taxes. Then our leaders can invent the partnership between big business and big government that’s sure to make our system work.”
“No,” says the right, “just a little more growth and productivity — and a can-do spirit. That’ll guarantee the output we need to successfully drag along this parasitic welfare state we’ll never get rid of.”
Despair lurks behind both these moral and political sales pitches — in the sinking realization that the only thing holding them together is moxie. In a cruel twist, the feverish torpor Tocqueville warned us about over 150 years ago has arisen from our bipartisan unwillingness even to countenance the possibility that the age of optimism is necessarily over.
Accepting the end of optimism might just save America. Loosed from the spell of optimism, the myth of liberalism becomes a warning that our current path has doomed us to a period of agitated paralysis — as the conservative myth affirms that we are unable either to repose in the past or to escape it.
It may well be that the best we can hope for in the coming decades is to labor over the present as a therapeutic form of discipline. But it makes a mockery of us all to pretend that the word optimism can apply to those who will call for the most painful remedy to avoid that fate — an end to the contemporary American System that blurs welfare and warfare together in a deluge of deficit expenditures.
The hard lesson all optimisms deny is that freedom hurts, yesterday, today and forever. In realizing that optimism is not another word for happiness, we edge closer to the recognition that pain is not the opposite of happiness. On the precipice of our unsurpassed debt crisis, Americans must decide not whether to suffer, but how.
Not to worry, partisans — ideological politics won’t come to an end anytime soon. After all, the only way to determine how we should suffer is to ask why we should suffer at all. On that question, liberals and conservatives are as deeply divided as ever. Happy now?
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.