“We must revive the fine tradition of conservative pessimism. In this age, optimism is for children and fools. And liberals.” – John Derbyshire
In light of last fall’s elections, how optimistic should we be about America’s future? The melancholy state of the Republican Party has led many to associate optimism with liberalism, but the GOP is floundering precisely because we let go of the unreasonable optimism that was once a hallmark of conservatism. It’s time to put the rose-colored glasses back on and revive the fine tradition of conservative optimism.
Most of us maintain that we are realists, splitting the difference between unreasonable optimism and hopeless pessimism. We claim to look at the facts without rose-colored glasses, making rational judgments about the future. Conservatives should not allow themselves to fall into this trap, however. We have become too reasonable. Conservatives have always been – and should always be – the most hopeful, unreasonable, starry-eyed optimists in the world.
Admittedly, the basic values of conservatism do not appear to be very optimistic. At its core, conservatism understands that humans are fallen creatures, that men are not angels. It is in this respect that conservatism garners its reputation for reasonability. Conservatives recognize original sin and realize that humans always look out for their own interests first. In this sense, conservatism is brutally realistic. No one understands the darkness of humanity like a true conservative.
Unfortunately, the modern conservative narrative halts abruptly at this principle. If the sinfulness of man were the whole story, conservatism could not justify its own existence. If men are inherently evil, it is futile to try to form a good government from them. The logical extension of this point is apathy: those who believe that men are sinful and selfish think good government impossible.
Though conservatives acknowledge the self-interested, fallen state of man, they still devote vast quantities of resources to the hopeless cause of building a good government out of bad people. Conservatives try to build a sturdy house out of faulty bricks. It’s one thing to refuse to acknowledge the faulty brick; it’s another thing to see the faulty brick and keep building. History reveals that governments, like houses, tend to decay. Greece, Rome, and even America followed the natural pattern of good government destroyed by bad men. That’s what men do: they make things go downhill. Conservatives know this fact, but continue their Sisyphean endeavor. We cling to an unfounded hope that we might somehow counteract the general trend of nature.
Nowhere is this hope more evident than in the early years of the Revolutionary War. Had the Founding Fathers been reasonable, had they looked at the facts, they never would have fought the British. George Washington would have realized that the puny American colonies stood no chance against the strongest military in the world. James Madison would have seen that no revolution in history had ever formed a successful government, and no written constitution in history had ever lasted more than a few generations. In truth, the Founding Fathers understood these facts; they did not have their heads in the sand. Nevertheless, they fought. They faced the facts and made decisions based on them, but held tightly to an unreasonable hope. The Founding Fathers built a government knowing that all men – themselves included – were born in sin and naturally self-interested. They entrusted those same people with the governance of a country, knowing full well the danger of entrusting anything to mankind. The day before the signing of the Declaration, John Adams wrote, “I am well aware of the toil, and blood, and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory.” He saw as clearly as anyone that the odds were against the young nation. It is also important to note that Adams did not justify his vision of “ravishing lights and glory.” He admits a thoroughly unshakable optimism, which he did not lose no matter how ridiculous it seemed. It was this optimism that enabled the Founding Fathers to capture the imaginations of thousands of young men, inspiring them to fight an impossible war to establish an infeasible country. Their belief in the impossible made it possible.
That sentiment sounds too much like the theme of a Disney movie for conservatives to accept it. But it is this exact paradox, the tension between the brutal facts and belief in a happy ending, that gives conservatism its motivating energy. In his bestselling book Good to Great, Jim Collins describes the importance of this tension to successful business ventures. He writes that what sets apart successful businesses from mediocre ones is a “powerful psychological duality. On the one hand, they stoically accepted the brutal facts of reality. On the other hand, they maintained a . . . commitment to prevail as a great company despite the facts.” This is the road that conservatism has walked throughout its history. Now is not the time to abandon it.
In the words of GK Chesterton, “Rational optimism leads to stagnation: it is irrational optimism that leads to reform… It is the rational optimist who fails, the irrational optimist that succeeds.” The modern Republican Party stagnates because our optimism is too rational. We should follow the example of Biblical patriarch Abraham, who “hoped against hope.” Conservatives must choose both hope and fact, synthesizing optimism and realism without degenerating into pessimism. The men quoted in this essay –Adams, Chesterton, and Father Abraham– are giants of history. To become a giant, one must put one’s head in the clouds.