Depending on how you look at it, the mood in the United States of late has been either an overdue stock-taking — as we reckon with issues like racism, rape culture, runaway law enforcement and out-of-control income inequality — or relentlessly grim. Surely, unrelieved despair — either personally or more broadly, socially — can lead to paralysis. But despite a big Sunday Review cover piece in the New York Times, “We Need Optimists,” extolling the virtues of positive thinking, that habit without reflection can be just as dangerous, especially in our leadership.
As a society we don’t have a whole lot of patience for skeptics or even realists — our politics and popular culture has been dominated by people who tell us what we want to hear. Arthur C. Brooks, president of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, argues that we need more of that positive thinking. His Times story lists some indicators of our current dour state. “In 2014,” he writes, “a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll revealed that 76 percent of Americans did not feel confident that ‘life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us.’ This is 10 percentage points worse than the poll had ever recorded.”