We’re Hooked on a Feeling–of Despair
And high on believing that everything is worse than it is.
Greetings from gray and gloomy Fort Lauderdale. It’s cloudy and rainy and so it’s about 100 times better to be here than in frigid D.C. right now.
You see what I did there? I looked at the bright side of life.
Cue musical interlude from Monty Python:
If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you've forgotten
And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle, that’s the thing
Always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the right side of life
So, I’ve probably mentioned that I wrote a whole book called Suicide of the West. I know: The title sounds like we couldn’t get clearance for Why You Should Take a Bath with a Toaster. But the point of the book was actually kind of uplifting, or at least it was intended that way. I argued that we should be grateful for how good we have it and how wonderful our country is—warts and all. I didn’t just mean this in a scolding way (though there was some scolding). I wasn’t like Judge Smails in Caddyshack telling Spaulding, “You’ll get nothing, and like it!”
It was more like, “You’ve got so much and you should like it—and here’s why.” On a very fundamental level it was a kind of self-help advice. Gratitude opens your heart. It erases, or at least balances out, many of the negative emotions that drive so much of our culture and politics these days. Gratitude isn’t just the opposite of the entitlement and despair that infects so much of American life, it’s also an antidote to it. If you’ve ever had a health scare or spent an extended amount of time away from home in an unpleasant place, you know that feeling of gratitude that comes from just appreciating what you have and the people—or dogs!—who love you. Sometimes we are actually capable of taking that feeling and building on it. We don’t take friends or family for granted. We resolve to put in the work to sustain or even improve those things we hold most dear. When we’re away from our kids, we gain a new appreciation for how important it is to spend time with them.
Such lessons and opportunities are all around us. COVID prevented many of us from traveling or socializing with friends, and that deprivation gave us a new appreciation for such things. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of partisan hooey embedded in the “war on democracy” stuff. But at a very fundamental level, some people sincerely saw a real threat to democracy and it gave them a new appreciation for democracy. There’s even more partisan bunkum in some of the hysteria about censorship these days, but some people sincerely gained a new appreciation for free speech rules when they saw their freedom of speech circumscribed or threatened.
The great vulnerability inherent to liberal democratic capitalism is complacency. When we don’t teach people to appreciate what we have they take it for granted and, over time, they can start to see the essential things as trivial or dispensable. We think prosperity is natural. It’s not. We think liberty is baked into the cake. It’s not. The natural state of humanity is poverty, disease, deprivation, and fear.
At a very fundamental level, progressive economics is premised on the unstated assumption that our wealth and prosperity are independent from the system that creates them. We can give everyone piles of money or spend lavishly on social programs because wealth is an inexhaustible resource like sand on a beach or water in the ocean. We can tax businesses and the wealthy without much concern that there will be unintended consequences. What is modern monetary theory other than a form of magical thinking that says there’s no plausible reason we can’t just spend as much money on anything and everything we want without consequence? Most of the folks who constantly invoke Sweden or Denmark as models for what we should be doing here are operating on a mythical idea of how those countries work. The Scandinavians long ago figured out that a generous welfare state depends on a functioning market economy (not to mention high taxes on the middle class). It’s fine to believe we should be more like those countries, but if you have no idea what those countries actually do, you might as well be arguing that we embrace the economics of Narnia or Starfleet.
I think the rise in crime is more complicated than the bumper sticker arguments about “defund the police” suggest. But again, at a fundamental level, the idea that you can get rid of police is premised on the assumption that crime isn’t a real problem. It’s like thinking a beautiful garden or golf course looks that way naturally. Why spend money on gardeners or groundskeepers that keep the weeds or gophers at bay? After all, I don’t see any weeds or gophers, and the gardeners and groundskeepers are expensive and sometimes do stuff that make people mad.
In foreign policy, people on the right and left look out at the status quo of an America-led global order, and see only the problems and costs while taking the benefits for granted.
Whenever I make the argument for gratitude, someone will invariably read me as making the argument for complacency. I point out that America is less racist than at any period in its history, and the reply is, “So you think we should ignore racism?” When I make the factual observation that America’s environment has vastly improved in myriad, quantifiable ways over the last century—cleaner air and water, massive reforestation, any number of endangered species recovered, etc.—they hear me saying, “We should do nothing about climate change!”
Gratitude doesn’t necessarily invite complacency, but it can invite, even demand, effort. If you love your vintage car and want to pass it on to your kids, you don’t automatically think, I don’t have to take care of this. You do the opposite. You watch out for rust. You keep it in a garage. It’s only when you take the things you cherish for granted that you stop protecting and caring for them. (That’s why I think patriotism is different from nationalism. Patriotism depends on gratitude for the things you love about this country and demands effort and action from you to preserve them.)
Let’s stick with the environment for a second. At the cultural level—the media, Hollywood, public education, etc.—we are addicted to telling people the environment is a disaster. The way you can tell it’s an addiction is that the evidence for despair keeps changing, but the despair itself remains constant. When I was a little kid, it was overpopulation, the hole in the ozone layer, pollution, and even global cooling (a new ice age is coming!). Well, overpopulation isn’t a problem any more. Air pollution in the United States has steadily declined. We fixed acid rain. Water quality has improved dramatically in the U.S. The hole in the ozone layer has been steadily shrinking and isn’t really a concern anymore. The year I was born the Cuyahoga River literally caught fire. Thanks to a lot of effort—and government regulations—it’s recovered enormously. Is it perfect? Of course not. Is it a lot better? Absolutely.
And yet, a lot of people think the environment has gotten worse. For the last 20 years, the share of Americans who say the environment has “gotten worse” has ranged from about half to two-thirds, even as the environment has steadily improved.
Of course, part of the problem is that the very real successes are ignored as the doom addiction begins to feed on other sources, specifically climate change.
I got to thinking about all of this because the New York Times recently reported on the burgeoning field of “ecopsychology” that has sprouted up in response to all of the people seeking psychiatric help for their despair about climate change. One patient, convinced that her children were “doomed,” vented her despair to a therapist:
Dr. Doherty listened quietly. Then he told her, choosing his words carefully, that the rate of climate change suggested by the data was not as swift as what she was envisioning.
“In the future, even with worst-case scenarios, there will be good days,” he told her, according to his notes. “Disasters will happen in certain places. But, around the world, there will be good days. Your children will also have good days.”
Maybe, just maybe, we’d have fewer people suffering from crippling phobias about the environment if we spent a little more time telling people a lot of things have gotten better? I don’t mean that in the Monty Pythonesque “look on the bright side” sense. I mean if people understood that problems are fixable, that progress is possible, they might have a more constructive outlook?
I’m not necessarily making the case for every environmental regulation under the sun, though laws to clean up the air and water were valuable and necessary. But you know what made such reforms possible? American prosperity. Everywhere in the world, when societies get rich enough to see their natural environments as treasures to be protected rather than resources to be exploited, they start doing exactly that. A key driver of this is innovation. Forests started to rebound in the U.S. when we stopped using trees for fuel and many forms of construction. Whales started to rebound when we moved off our dependence on Big Whale Oil. Natural gas and nuclear power are huge improvements over coal.
Okay, enough with the environmental stuff. Eco-dread is but one facet of a larger cultural phenomenon. We’re hooked on despair. It’s telling that the people most reluctant to get “back to normal” with regard to the pandemic are the people best situated to do exactly that. The people most opposed to removing mask and vaccine mandates are also the most likely to be vaccinated thrice-over.
Progressivism, for all its myriad flaws, has historically depended on a certain “can do” attitude, an openness to the possibilities of human effort to make life better. On everything from the environment, to economics, to racism, progressives have turned fatalistic and despondent. Unable to countenance the reality of progress, progressivism has retreated into a kind of culture of tribal scolding at all the Americans they think are living wrong.
Of course, progressivism isn’t the only thing that had a can-do spirit. This also used to be an American thing, specifically a conservative thing. Dunk on “zombie Reaganism” all you like, the fact is that Reagan’s politics were defined by a sunny, can-do optimism and faith in the American people. And say what you want about Reagan’s policies, but one thing was never in doubt: He loved this country and was grateful for it.
It’s no coincidence that many of the loudest voices on the right mocking Reagan, the “dead consensus,” fusionism, etc., are also the most contemptuous of American society and its institutions. They think America is going to hell and that there’s precious little about America to be grateful for. They, too, have fallen into a similar culture of tribal scolding. Each side has its fantasies about how state power can impose their vision on how to force other people to live the way they want them to and how other countries—whether Hungary, China, and Russia or Sweden, Denmark, and Cuba—have figured out how to do it.
So here’s a little free advice. Before you get furious at the next thing the conflict merchants want you to get furious about, remind yourself of the simple fact that this is a fundamentally good and decent country, in which all manner of good things have happened and are continuing to happen even though no one wants to tell you about them. More importantly, the only thing that can actually ruin this country is believing the people peddling despair to you for their own power or profit.