Six Reasons for Optimism (and one big one for pessimism)

Below are six causes for optimism. But I should stress, as I have since The Reactionary Mind, that the reason I think the right has not much of a future is that it has won. If you consider its great animating energies since the New Deal—anti-labor, anti-civil rights, and anti-feminism—the right has achieved a considerable amount of success. Either in destroying or beating back these movements. So the hopefulness you read below, it needs to be remembered, is built on the ruins of the left. It reflects a considerable pessimism and arises from a sober realism about where we are right now.


An ABC News poll has Trump at 38% of the popular vote. It’s only one poll, and I haven’t been paying much attention to the polls (what’s the point?), but if Trump does get 38%—which is about what I’ve been thinking he’ll get, plus or minus a point—he’ll be squarely within McGovern territory. With a very few exceptions, he’s rarely broken, in a four-way race, above 40%. (That said, Clinton, with her 50%, according to ABC, won’t be in Nixon territory.) No major-party candidate of the last 50 years, aside from George H.W. Bush, has gotten less than 40% of the vote, and in Bush’s case, it had a lot to do with Perot. This will go down as a catastrophic defeat, at the presidential level, for the Republican Party.

Side note: I notice that my Nixon/Clinton and Trump/McGovern comparisons, along with my silent majority reference, are becoming less controversial.


For all of Trump’s bluster at the third debate about not accepting the election results, I’m confident that once it’s over, and the verdict is in, he and his followers will go, more or less gently, into that good night.

We on the left—perhaps liberals, too—are so used to being defeated, demoralized, and depressed, so used to losing to the right, that we have no sense that the right can suffer the same. We have no sense of the impact this election will have on the Trumpites. We believe their bullshit: we take their sense of entitlement as a sign of deep wells of conviction, of belief in their right and authority, or perhaps even of their actual right and authority, as if this really is their country.

They have a better, more accurate sense of their dwindling political fortune. It’s what gives their rhetoric its enervating rather than exhilarating character. Listen to Pat Buchanan in the 1970s and 1980s: the inventiveness of his brutality, the energy of his cruelty. There’s a world of difference between the expansiveness of that revanchism and the narrow straits that is Trump’s. The former speaks in pages and paragraphs; the latter in two- or three-word fragments, without any Marionetti-like patter of power.

Trump’s is not the voice of confidence, of right, of command. This is not the voice of a man who can lead a rearguard revolt in the streets. This is the voice of a man—and a movement—who is tired, beaten, and demoralized, who starts sentences he can barely muster enough energy to finish.


Consider the decreasing half-life of the American right’s various populist experiments over the past four decades.

In the lead-up to Reagan’s victories in the 1980s, that right-wing populism was represented by the Moral Majority. And it lasted quite a long time, in part because it skillfully fused the racism of the segregation academies issue with the religiosity of school prayer and the gender politics of abortion. That brand managed to carry the GOP all the way from Reagan into the first Bush administration.

Then it was the Christian Coalition, and it lasted a slightly less long time, and with less success. Clinton was president during much of its heyday, and its only electoral victory was the 2000 election of Bush. One of the reasons for its diminution of power, relatively speaking, is that it no longer had the issues of busing and school desegregation to mobilize against the way the Christian Right had in the 1970s and 1980s.

Then it was the Tea Party, which, despite the claims of its defenders and critics, has seen an even shorter time in the sun, in part because the Christian Right had been so successful on the abortion front, at least at the state level.

And now it’s Trump and the alt-right. And you know what I think about how much time it has left on this earth.

Analysts of the right tend to think that conservatism is a permanent feature of modern political life, and it is. But what they don’t get is that its existence is cyclical. It has a rise and fall, a life and death, in response to the success or failure of the left.

We’re coming on the years of its fall, and it has been long in the making (since the administration of George W. Bush, I’ve argued). Among the best pieces of evidence for that decline, I think, are the decreasing half-lives of its populist expressions, these ever more desperate attempts to recreate the magic of its originating moment in the backlash against the labor movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the women’s movement.


Some time around the election of George W. Bush, Irving Kristol—not Bill Kristol, but Bill’s father, the real brains of the operation—told me:

American conservatism lacks for political imagination. It’s so influenced by business culture and by business modes of thinking that it lacks any political imagination, which has always been, I have to say, a property of the left. If you read Marx, you’d learn what a political imagination could do.

That (and the end of the Cold War), he said, is “one of the reasons I really not am not writing much these days. I don’t know the answers.”

This was not the voice of a tired, old man, though he was tired and old and a man. This was the voice of a movement that had lost its way, its raison d’être.


From the 1960s to the 1980s, California was the pacesetter for the right. It gave us Nixon, Reagan, and Proposition 13.

In the 1990s, California was again the pacesetter, only in the opposite direction: Pete Wilson tried to do on the state level what Trump is now trying to do at the national level. It proved to be a spectacular political failure, long-term, driving much of the state, which previously had been a Republican state (between 1952 and 1992, California went for the Democratic presidential candidate only once), into the hands of the Democrats.


I hear a lot of folks saying how terrible it is that a third to 40% of the electorate would support Trump. And it is.

But put this in historical perspective: once upon a time, not so long ago, that kind of racism and cruelty propelled the Republican Party to the White House. Not once, not twice, but again and again and again. No more.

And if you think that the difference is that the racism and cruelty were once quiet but are now loud, that argument too can be flipped on its head: It once took only the faintest of dog whistles to get the majority out to the polls. Now it takes a blaring speaker system and even that doesn’t work.

The country that elected a black president with a foreign-sounding name—twice—may have turned a certain kind of corner.


  1. halginsberg1963 October 23, 2016 at 9:14 pm | #

    There is reason for pessimism in a landslide Clinton victory because she is the candidate of the corporatists and militarists.

  2. Evan Harper October 23, 2016 at 11:07 pm | #

    > If you consider its great animating energies since the New Deal—anti-labor, anti-civil rights, and anti-feminism—the right has achieved a considerable amount of success.

    This is incredible. America’s about to elect a woman president to succeed a black one and you’re trying to tell me that feminism and civil rights are in a worse position than they were in 1945. The decline of organized labor I’ll give you but it’s hard to believe that labor share of income dropping from ~63.5% to ~60.5% really reflects a historic triumph for bosses, especially not when that represents a ~5% loss of the share in a 2x or 3x larger pie. America is pretty OK. Only from a diehard “socialismo o muerte” perspective, where Obama and Clinton are basically slight variants of Reagan and Thatcher – because they don’t want to nationalize and expropriate everything – does the left look to be “in ruins.”

  3. Julien October 23, 2016 at 11:29 pm | #

    Thomas Mallon made a Clinton – Nixon comparison on Friday’s New Yorker politics podcast:

  4. Graham Clark October 23, 2016 at 11:32 pm | #

    Only from a diehard “socialismo o muerte” perspective, where Obama and Clinton are basically slight variants of Reagan and Thatcher

    Only from a “‘die’ effortlessly because actually I’ve always been fine with Reaganomics” perspective are Obama and Clinton conceivably anything else.

    America’s about to elect a woman president to succeed a black one

    Let them – “them” meaning, for example, the 1/3 of black men we send to jail in their lifetimes; or, you know, the poor – eat representation!

    And of course Robin’s point isn’t about conditions being better or worse, but rather about the ability of movements to continue to effect change. In 1964-5, the left was still able to get the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and Medicare enacted. Since then, it hasn’t been able to do anything on a comparable scale. (A majority of the justices who ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Roe vs. Wade were appointed by presidents and confirmed by senators elected before 1968; and same sex marriage effects a much smaller proportion of the population.) (If you’re going to pretend the Heritage Foundation’s health care plan is an achievement of the left, save everybody the embarrassment.)

    • Evan Harper October 23, 2016 at 11:54 pm | #

      The Left was able to enact a flurry of progressive legislation in 1964-5 because it controlled the Presidency and massive majorities in the Senate and House, largely because the GOP nominated an historically awful candidate. Such a confluence of majorities has never since existed in America. This is probably a better explanation than some sob story about the Right’s ruination of the “great animating energies” of the Left, or conspiracy theories about how Obama and Clinton are functionally Reaganites, for why we haven’t yet seen a second War on Poverty.

      • Graham Clark October 24, 2016 at 12:02 am | #

        The Left was able to enact a flurry of progressive legislation in 1964-5 because it controlled the Presidency and massive majorities in the Senate and House

        No it didn’t. The Democrats had massive majorities, which of course isn’t at all the same thing as the left, especially at a time when Dixiecrats still existed.

        Such a confluence of majorities has never since existed in America.

        Of course it has. 2002-2006.

        conspiracy theories about how Obama and Clinton are functionally Reaganites

        It’s not a conspiracy. They both openly idolize the man.

        • Evan Harper October 24, 2016 at 1:32 am | #

          Obama liked to think, early in his first term, that he would be a “Reaganesque” figure in the sense of moving America in his preferred direction through sheer charisma. Believing this kind of dumb Fournier/Halperin nonsense about how politics really works is culpable but portraying it as “idolizing Reagan” is completely untenable. Obama has never for a moment praised Reagan’s actual governing agenda; he talked vaguely about “clarity,” “optimism,” “dynamism,” and “entrepreneurship.” To see this as a serious betrayal of progressive ideals is self-reguting.

          And of course a 51-49 Senate majority is very different from a 67-33 one. Maybe the reason the far-left isn’t doing so well is that arguments of this calibre are the best it can come up with.

          • Graham Clark October 24, 2016 at 8:40 am | #

            Well at least not-very-far left affiliated yours truly has shown that I know the difference between party and ideology. You’d think, if nothing else, the liberal center would finally have learned that from the betrayal of the Blue Dogs over the Affordable Care Act – but then, learning never seems to be your thing. By the way, have fun in a couple of years when the fact that your candidate has made Syria even worse becomes impossible to ignore and you’re explaining why it’s not your fault.

      • Graham Clark October 24, 2016 at 12:06 am | #


        This is probably a better explanation than some sob story about the Right’s ruination of the “great animating energies” of the Left

        You’re having a conversation with yourself here. Robin’s point is exactly the opposite – that the Right was able to defeat the left because the force that had animated the left from the 1930s through the early 1960s was gone.

  5. Graham Clark October 23, 2016 at 11:52 pm | #

    Whenever Robin writes about this, there seems to me to be an unspoken optimistic assumption that now it’s going to be the left’s turn again. (Sure, Clinton will have a Watergate, but then in a few years we’ll get our Reagan, etc.) I don’t know. The neoliberal center seem to me more ideologically exhausted than the right, who at least knows globalization has failed, and has, on its own brutal terms, a coherent answer. I guess the optimistic scenario is that the neoliberals will take ideas from the left – well, anything’s possible, but for example some people thought the Hollande government would do that in France, and they’ve done exactly the opposite, so now his party is so hated that the OPTIMISTIC scenario in France is that center-right Juppé rather than proto-Trump Sarkozy wins the conservative primary. After 8 years of Clinton performing at her usual level, that seems a likely place for America to find itself.

  6. Roquentin October 24, 2016 at 12:40 am | #

    While I share a degree of your optimism, I think it’s for slightly different reasons. Maybe this is just implied in what you wrote, as I’m sure you’re aware of it. Electoral politics in the US is first and foremost demographics, the glacial movements of entire populations. Almost all other factors are just the icing on the cake.

    Simply put, all the demographics the GOP has hitched its cart to are shrinking.

    Strike one: The people who vote Republican have a strong tendency to be older, with the young who replace them being not just more amenable to the Democratic party, but generally favorable towards socialism itself.

    Strike two: The country is becoming less white, and the GOP is overwhelmingly a white man’s party. If there is anything original about Trump, it’s that he’s brought it out open in a way people haven’t since Nixon or maybe even Wallace. The GOP damn well knows it too, which is the entire reason behind things like the Voter ID laws. They can’t win fair anymore, so they have to figure out ways to put their thumbs on the scale. Expect to see more of this in the future. Trump’s claim to not honor the election results might be pure bullshit, but these reactionaries don’t strike me as the types to bow out gracefully. I expect them to go down kicking and screaming all the way to the door.

    Strike three: This is less favorable to the Democrats as well since they are a crudely neoliberal capitalist party at present. Clinton brought that out in the open in an unprecedented way as Trump did for racism in the GOP. Anyhow, the neoliberal model not only increases the massive disparity in wealth but doesn’t even admit that it is a problem. It will be utterly incapable of solving this on its own. The portion of the population that is wealthy is going to shrink and the haute bourgeoisie, the .0001%, the oligarchy in control of the country simply either won’t buy off enough of the population to maintain support. In short, as perverse as it sounds, the ratcheting up of inequality and poverty is a boon for the left.

    Or as old Marx said “what the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers”

    • Roquentin October 24, 2016 at 12:47 am | #

      I almost forgot, since I got caught up in a lame baseball metaphor: Churchgoing evangelical Christians are shrinking too. Church attendance in the US has been on the decline for decades. This group is too small to dominate the electorate anymore too.

      The list goes on. It’s remarkable how all of these are on the wane simultaneously.

    • Graham Clark October 24, 2016 at 9:23 am | #

      Pessimist counterpoints:

      1. If the young had power, Sanders would be president. What we have now is a contest between old neoliberals and old conservatives, where the young can either be auxiliaries for the neoliberals who get nothing for their trouble (as with Obama), or simply nothing at all. Of course things may change in the medium term when enough of the old are dead – let’s say around the late 2030s, corresponding to the baby boomers’ apotheosis in the late 1990s – but maybe not, because in the meantime new generations of young people will have grown up, and their politics are still up for grabs. How many years of miserable stasis under the ostensibly center-left party does it take before the right starts to look good?

      2. Today’s immigrants are no more permanently left-of-center than the Irish and Italians.

      3. America becoming less white – which for some people seems to have replaced the Second Coming and the end of class as the ultimate redemption at the end of history – can be offset by a decrease in the proportion of white people who still vote Democratic; first, if more and more non-Hispanic white Americans coalesce into an ethnic political block (we may already be seeing that with white men and Trump, and if it survives him, then obviously many more white women will join as soon as Trump himself, with his special genius for repulsing them, is gone); second, because conservative white people have more children than liberals.

      4. “Strike three” seems to be the old “the worse the better/accelerate the contradictions” argument. The haute bourgeoisie was supposedly digging its own grave 150 years ago too. When do we finally admit that maybe it’s not dying?

      • Roquentin October 24, 2016 at 12:27 pm | #

        I’ll respond point by point:

        1) While I agree with your assessment that if the young had power Sanders would have one, I was identifying a long term historical trend. Yes, it will take another couple of decades for the boomers to fade out of the electorate and a lot could happen in the meantime, but this does not change that the major trend is working in that direction. You are right this isn’t all good. There are many very serious political problems that we can’t simply wait 20 years to solve. I don’t have a good answer for what is to be done in the meantime.

        2) You are right, immigrants and people of color aren’t necessarily more leftist in their outlook, but they are forced to be simply by the fact that the GOP is openly a white person’s party. They don’t really have a choice, at least not right now. This isn’t just wishful thinking, nonwhite voters overwhelmingly favor the Democratic party if for no other reason than it isn’t openly racist towards them. Once again, I agree this isn’t purely a good thing. Making the Democrats neoliberalism with a multicultural face suits this trend well. In the near future, that is the political coalition which is likely to run the country.

        3) This is the only one I flat out disagree with. The electorate is rapidly changing to the point where even overwhelming support from whites alone, at least at the national level, is no longer enough to win. If some candidate came a long and managed to unite 90% of white people today, he or she could still potentially win, but this is an extremely unlikely event. Simply put, white people just don’t have the numbers to run the government strictly in their own interests. Once again, this is long term. We’re just seeing the start of it now. It’s only going to get worse for the people behind Trump.

        4) I admit that this won’t solve all our problems, but more people with less money and not even the hope of upward mobility is still a boon for the left. This doesn’t mean all these people are just going to wake up one day and start reading Das Kapital either, but the virtues of the free market are going to be a way tougher sell. Once again, this is a nascent trend, the inflection point where it began being roughly 2008. That was the moment Chicago School/Austrian Economics stopped being plausible to most of the US

        • Graham Clark October 24, 2016 at 4:09 pm | #

          3) This is the only one I flat out disagree with.

          I’m not surprised. It seems to me that, even for many people who are unquestionably committed to economic leftist, this takes ultimate priority: the dream of a USA – and maybe a Europe – where white people are collectively no more influential than any other ethnic group. It’s not going to happen. Or rather, the only way it might happen is through an ideal of integration, which most of the left now rejects, and policies that tried to make that ideal a reality as much as possible. What the neoliberals are doing now, with the left for once in agreement – treating America “becoming less white” not merely as a matter of indifference but as a positive good – is just going to mobilize white people against them, in increasing numbers and intensity for however long they keep doing it. The fact that non-Latino white people don’t quite comprise a majority of young Americans doesn’t mean inevitable political victory for the liberal-left consensus, even if all Latinos and Asians supported them, which of course they don’t. Black people have already been disproportionately disenfranchised for 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, and as for immigration, the existing backlash has already resulted in the record-setting number of deportations under the Obama administration, and which will of course continue under the Clinton administration. There’s no law of nature that says the United States has to stay open to immigrants – insofar as it currently is – or stay a democracy – insofar as it currently is. You could, maybe, one day, have a United States where currently observed ethnic and racial distinctions become less and less important. (As has already happened to some extent, not only for non-WASP Europeans, but also for East Asians.) Or you can have what you have now, a United States where races and ethnicities are strongly conscious of themselves and of each other, nominally committed to equality between them, but in fact with white people as the dominant group and black people in particular subject to ferocious oppression. But you can’t have what you’re trying to get, and the more and the longer you try, what you’ll get is more voter suppression, more deportations, and more immigration restrictions.

  7. Corey Robin October 24, 2016 at 8:04 am | #

    Evan Harper: “Since the New Deal” doesn’t mean you measure these things since the New Deal; it’s that at various moments these have become the animating energies since the New Deal. Anti-feminism, for instance, didn’t become a central part of the right’s repertoire until the 1970s. Anti-civil rights was also a later arrival (in fact, many opponents of the New Deal in the Republican Party were pro-civil rights). In any event, since the triumph of the Right in the 1980s, the racial wealth gap has gotten huge. Rates of segregation were going down in the 1970s and have gone back up since the 1980s. On the labor front, it’s not merely the question of income percentages, it’s also membership, which has been declining steadily for years, and the concomitant loss of power. These are not hard left positions; even Obama understood that reforming labor law was a critical issue, for which he didn’t have the votes.

    Also, this is my blog, you’re my guest. Please don’t come onto my comments threads, acting as if everyone who disagrees with you an idiot and a holy fool. It makes for a less than productive conversation.

    • LENA October 24, 2016 at 3:23 pm | #

      Yes, it is.

      But people are dying slowly, slowly, slowly… while you are speaking about… I can not understand.

      Sorry, but in Europe we miss Wolin.

      Is that a good “guest” for your “leftist” (?) blog?

  8. Heliopause October 24, 2016 at 9:39 pm | #

    1. You really shouldn’t highlight a single poll to make a point when there are about a million of them out there. The actual state of the race at this moment is probably more like Clinton +5, give or take.

    2. Certainly HRC is the less terrible choice of the two, but to affix the word “optimism” to the prospect of a POTUS who is a sociopathic liar, criminal, war hawk, and who has openly stated that she will give her serial rapist husband a position of authority in the new administration, is a bridge too far.

    • Graham Clark October 24, 2016 at 11:32 pm | #

      Come on, people, I think Robin is a bit too serene about HC too, but he did all that honor and duty requires and then some to support Sanders all the way through the primaries and he’s strongly defended people who refuse to vote for her. He’s more than entitled to use whatever words he wants.

      • Heliopause October 25, 2016 at 11:07 am | #

        Of course he is entitled to use any words he wants, and everyone else is entitled to say they think the words are inappropriate. I personally can’t use the word “optimism” to describe my surmise of how the next few years are going to go.

  9. Dean C. Rowan October 25, 2016 at 4:05 pm | #

    Offering perspective on sources of optimism, James Fallows: Put one way, one of the reasons the national scene is such a mess–setting aside Corey’s qualified optimism–is its utter disregard or disconnection from the way lives are lived locally.

  10. b. October 26, 2016 at 11:15 am | #

    “The country that elected a black president with a foreign-sounding name—twice—may have turned a certain kind of corner.”

    Obama was sponsored by Daschle and Lieberman. I would propose a theory of recent elections that might best be labelled “Judas goating” or “Trojan Horseshit”.

    The Tea Party in all its dysfunction owns the House Republicans – that’s what saved Social Security etc. from Obama’s “Grand Bargaineering”, and might save us from Simpson-Bowling-Clinton.

    Occupy, on the other hand….

    You might see a deterioration of the right, I see the extinction of an actual, effective alternative. The inertial existence of an interest group that call itself “Democratic Party” and its accelerating drift to become the Republicans For Future is not a sign for Hope, let alone a sign of Change.

  11. David Green October 28, 2016 at 12:20 am | #

    The alleged demise of the Republican Party will only be worth celebrating if it contributes to a re-alignment to the left of the now neolib/neocon Democratic Party that would attract the white working class and black/minority working class. Nor can I see celebrating, obviously, the success of a DP based on prying the Wall Street/Silicon Valley wealth away from the Republicans. Obviously I’m befuddled by Corey’s optimism.

  12. Carl Weetabix October 28, 2016 at 12:34 pm | #

    The Cubs may win the World Series, and the Red Sox have now thrice, but the Yankees always find their way back. I would be careful on any predictions of the demise of the right, especially when from an economic and security sense the difference between the two parties is barely recognizable.

  13. Edward October 28, 2016 at 9:05 pm | #

    I may end up voting for Donald Trump if I become convinced Hillary Clinton will embroil us in a nuclear war with Russia.

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