26 May 2018

Ditch the declinism


Every year, Bill and Melinda Gates publish an open letter about their work at the Gates Foundation. Last year’s was addressed to their friend Warren Buffett – arguably the world’s most successful investor – who has donated a large chunk of his billions to the foundation.

They used the letter to chart the tremendous return on philanthropic investment that they had delivered for Buffett. But one line sticks out as for its broader truth: “Optimism is a huge asset. We can always use more of it. But optimism isn’t a belief that things will automatically get better; it’s a conviction that we can make things better. We see this in you, Warren. Your success didn’t create your optimism; your optimism led to your success.”

What is true of an individual is, in this case, true of a nation.

On a national and international level, optimism is in short supply across the West. The press serves up a healthy dose of political and economic misery; election after election seems to confirm the existence of deep-seated discontent. Whatever the specific subject, the message is the same. The party is over. Decline is inevitable.

The misery is mutually reinforcing. Populists stoke anger and moderates, tearing their hair out at their opponents’ success, start to lose faith in democracy itself. Divisions deepen, despair grows.

In Britain, a new initiative from the centre-left think tank Demos aims to counter this gloom. The Optimism Project claims to be driven by a “determination not to despair” and aims to help restore “a sense of national purpose, unity and optimism to our divided country”.

The Demos team do not deny the existence of big challenges. But they rightly argue that those challenges — whether the pressure of demographic change on public services or the way in which technology will change the workplace — require the kind of “collaborative, imaginative thinking” that is incompatible with a conviction that we’re all doomed.

Such an approach is more than wishful thinking. In fact, it is startlingly reflective of how people actually think.

Recent polling by YouGov for the Centre for Policy Studies, CapX’s parent body, suggests that people, especially the young, are pessimistic when asked about the direction of the country in broad terms.

But polling by Opinium suggests that when you dive down into the details, people become more optimistic: for example, about the long-term impact of health, living standards and the impact of technology. And most say that despite the political storms around them, they are just as happy with their own lives and careers as they ever were.

Even when it comes to subjects which involve very real challenges and on which the Westminster debate is unremittingly pessimistic, people are fairly upbeat. For example, 47 per cent are optimistic about the prospects of the younger generation in the long run.

Interestingly, people tend to be much less pessimistic about their own families and communities than they are about the country as a whole. The same is true of America.

According to a 2016 poll, just 36 per cent of Americans thought the country was heading in the right direction. But 85 per cent claimed to be satisfied or somewhat satisfied with “their own position in life and their ability to pursue the American dream”.

Husband-and-wife reporting team James and Deb Fallows have documented the gap between national politics and everyday civic life in a new book, Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America. Writing in The Atlantic, James explains what they found: “Even as the country is becoming worse in obvious ways — angrier, more divided, less able to do the basic business of governing itself — it is becoming distinctly better on a range of other indicators that are harder to perceive… Americans don’t realise how fast the country is moving toward becoming a better version of itself.”

Ultimately, however, the case for optimism isn’t based on a different estimation of the scale of the challenges we face, but a belief in our capacity to overcome them, whatever their size.

Declinism of the sort that dominates in Britain and across the West is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they want society to succeed, politicians and policymakers surely have a duty to rekindle in themselves the optimism that guides so many people’s lives.

This article is taken from CapX’s Weekly Briefing email. Sign up here.

Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.