THE BLOG
02/18/2014 05:12 pm ET Updated Apr 18, 2014

Pushing the Positive, Nay-Saying the Negative

Time appears to be running out on Obama's long-term plan for progressive change. So it's no surprise, according to polls, that many Americans are pretty jaded about "hope and change," his original brand from 2008.

It seems his most predictable activity these days is raising money. He must know how important the mid-term elections are. A loss for the Democrats might reverse what little "change" has been produced thus far, and perhaps force them to become even more like the Republicans to regain their advantage. Like all players he must submit to the rhythm of the ever longer election cycle, leaving little time for serious business. It seems there's only a very brief and narrow window after elections when players feel they can try and accomplish something. So if he gets the Democrats reelected perhaps he'll take advantage of the next window -- the end of 2014, early 2015 -- to make something happen. If recent history is any guide, we probably can't expect much until that window opens. As we saw in the run-up to the 2012 election, the consensus was that inaction and staying the course were more likely to attract votes than responding to the voters' needs.

This most recent post-election window has surely been slammed shut. Obama is spending more and more of his time reacting to whistleblowers and investigative reporters, defending the new privatized security state, and apologizing for scandals. These activities, along with the amount of time devoted to foreign policy and the Syrian conflict, are monopolizing the available space and time, leaving the economy in suspension. Even the Fed, barring an unexpected economic reversal, will soon cease to offer its measures to pump up the slumping economy: bond purchases, interest-free loans to banks, and the taking of toxic assets off their books. Janet Yellin's appointment promises at least a slightly different course, however.

Obama is unfortunately not reaching out to progressives, liberals or members of Occupy to forge a working coalition. He seems mostly interested in playing to the center-right and Republicans. His firm stand in October over the debt-ceiling was mostly a face-saving gesture to compensate for wimping out in the past. His speech-making platitudes for progressive change, his appeals to a larger humanity, a diverse pot of citizens melting together, a one in the many and the many in the one, are another matter. These are what get folks charged up and give pundits license to christen him a "liberal." There's a danger in taking the speeches for reality, however. Too many tune out and miss the power games beneath the surface, providing inadvertent support for the do-nothing drama behind the rhetoric.

Yet words can also incite to action, and Obama is a master linguist. Hope might be so inspiring that many wake up one day and demand that change catch up with prophecy. Well-placed and timed doses of optimism can evangelize the worst naysayer.

Americans are optimists. We rise to challenges, overcome adversity, and tackle difficult problems. We never cease believing in our ability to accomplish extraordinary things. We single out heroes who perform acts that collectively define an exceptional national character. We come together for natural disasters, and especially wars, to get the job done. We know that at the end of the day things will turn out good. We are, after all, a blessed nation; our actions and policies are divinely directed. And we are a cut above other nations.

Many who've been hard hit by this crisis are finding it difficult to be genuinely optimistic, however, and for good reasons. Most economists believe we could effectively be in recession for several more years. This attitude is so deep-seeded that many have come to accept inaction as natural. Unfortunately, we lack the kind of collective fervor that produced successful strategies to manage the Depression and eventually reverse course, fight WWII, pass Civil Rights legislation, mount a "war on poverty" in the '60s, or put a man on the moon in the same decade. These involved some measure of shared sacrifice and vision, and assumed the validity of a social contract that could provide solutions to issues relevant to all citizens, the "we" that Obama frequently proselytizes.

But that seems like ancient history. Solutions for the better good of most citizens, the larger society, are rarely considered in practice, only what could be called suboptimal ones, those dictated by special interests and which mostly result in fragile and unproductive compromises. Yet if the collective fervor that could shape more humane policies and solutions is lacking, a giddy optimism seems to have filled the void. Many embrace myths and abstractions that conveniently replace facts and even run counter to their own interests, convinced that not much can be done about the economy anyway and it's all really about them as vessels of personal influence. They refuse to dwell on the negative, believing this will only retard their ability to make things happen.

There's nothing wrong with staying upbeat, trying to at least become a passionate convert to a belief in optimism. Positive thinking can after all push many to go beyond themselves and do good things. But is the downside that the desire to believe can be so strong that many ignore actual policies and accept suboptimal "solutions" as normal? Do regressing times breed this desire?

Like in the 1970s, especially after mid-decade. These years offer a valuable lesson in what happens if too many get down. This stretch witnessed declining wages, stagflation (stagnation with inflation), persisting high unemployment and extremely high interest rates. The severity and persistence of these conditions bred a mentality among the populace that was epidemic, forcing President Carter to label it a "malaise" in a famous speech. This provoked an intense backlash. He was severely criticized for his "pessimistic anti-Americanism."

When the going gets too tough, the tough-minded flip reality with the proficiency that the most adept speculator flips real estate. Their minds game the reality show. Naturally, many need a positive boost of belief to compensate for what's often too difficult to face. It's revealing that this mentality marinates with the making of the center-right consensus that prepped the political soil for the election of Ronald Reagan. That stretch was rife with changes that fostered fantastical reaches, inflated sentiments that diverged from reality nearly as much as the interest rates, and a super-optimism of the greedy self that made markets larger than life. Individuals armed with potent fictions could thumb down at will any turn of events in the real economy.
The American Dream traffics in optimistic fantasies that can patch up holes in the social fabric. It's interesting that it was originally a credible, empirically-justified reference to the ability of individuals to achieve success mostly on their own in conditions that made it possible, but becomes virtually synonymous with material success in the 1970s. The country was built on migration from elsewhere by a diversity of folks who had difficulty making it in their home countries where conditions were not as favorable. We had a strong demand for labor and wide open spaces on a frontier stretching west for willing bodies to settle and homestead in the years, mainly after the Civil War, of rapid growth.

Ironically, it's in the early-to-mid 1970s when these conditions change and dreaming about success becomes more of the reality for many true believers. Wages begin to flatten around 1973, as Rick Wolf has shown, and adjusted for inflation they've remained flat since, providing immigrants with less of a lure to come here. Immigration does continue, however, due to deteriorating global economic conditions. Future waves experience barriers to success as a result of this flattening. The shrinking of opportunities and the spike in materialism coexists. The idea that making it is mostly about the accumulation and consumption of material objects, enters the conversation as the chances of making it become more difficult.

The problem is that many Americans are so enraptured with the American Dream that it has become a virtually jingoist shorthand for national superiority, almost as if its mere utterance validates our performance and way of life as unique. But of course most nations push their citizens beyond themselves to work hard and be successful. What's curious though is that the lingo has been resurrected and pumped up at the very moment when scandal after scandal suggests the deck might be stacked. Upward mobility has taken a severe hit, evident in the increasing decline of middle class wealth and purchasing power. And the economic downturn has amplified the damage. But despite all the evidence that this is due to how the system has, been politically patched together over the years, Dreamspeak is more popular than ever. CEOs, for example, are becoming ever more vocal about their belief that they alone create the wealth that sustains their huge salaries, fuel enough to keep optimism alive.

Unfortunately, the research into how the structure works gets little recognition or explanation in the media. There have been independent investigations recently into the self-made myth that nicely supplement it (selfmademyth.com). It's amazing how many profess the purist view these days that they alone make things happen, despite evidence and common sense to the contrary. Recall how often Mitt Romney endorsed this mythology in the 2012 campaign. But As Elizabeth Warren so nicely expressed it recently: no one gets rich on their own!

Testimonials from some of the highly successful reveal that behind their fortune are public funding mechanisms and grants, and very beneficial networks of influential people to track them through the process. In fact, a very significant number from this top tier come from considerable wealth and privilege and their connections were already mostly visible to them at a very young age, as Thomas Dye, Robert Domhoff and others have shown. What powerful fiction motivates so many to deny the communities of wealth creation in their pasts, while continuing to network those that allow them to keep their fortunes intact. Perhaps the lottery principle is partially to blame. The ever popular winner-take-all mentality permits the strongest ones standing to claim the spoils, making all the fallen into losers.

Steve Jobs was the super-heroic Titan of computer technology, but the research that made it possible was funded and developed by the federal government. It was a public venture shaped back in the 1960s when the belief that government could do good things still prevailed, and realized subsequently by many gifted minds. None of that heritage is included in the narratives, however, as if private expropriation from collective property is as natural as computer viruses. Had the fickleness of the granting culture been different; had Mr. Jobs missed an important deadline along the way, or an important meeting, perhaps another Titan would have surfaced to claim the spoils.

The American Dream can make patriots of us, but also turn us into cheerleaders so that we repress negative, yet necessary information from our lives, and even stop thinking critically, as Barbara Ehrenreich suggests in Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. Have many good Americans groomed on material affluence, or at least the mentality of identifying with it, become fundamentalists of endless progress and gotten spoiled? Are they encouraged by advertisers who must create a positive buying mood to keep the products flowing?

So what's in the minds of America's patriots? One of the striking results of the economic downturn is that many who've never been political or paid much attention to current events are coming out of the woodwork to express themselves. I meet a variety of citizens in the Los Angeles area on a weekly basis, at cafes like Profane Grind, Abbot's Habit, Kafe Neo, Agua Viento, Birdcage, Rose Café and others, or while immersing in the flow of everyday life. We have lively and sometimes contentious discussions about the issues of the day, those represented in AMASS Magazine and elsewhere. The one that's very popular these days is inequality, or the power-and-resource-gap between top and bottom, haves and have-nots, and the feeble responses from elites to resolve it. What's especially notable about this buzz of interest is that it escapes the usual inclinations toward left or right, liberal or conservative...

This post is an excerpt from A People's Manifesto (2014). John O'Kane's most recent book is Venice, CA: A City State of Mind (2013).