Our Inner Skeptic Just Might Save Our Optimism

Our possibilities as a nation of optimists are being derailed by false, unmet, and unchallenged promises

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What will tomorrow bring?

The drip, drip, drip of doubt is keeping us awake at night

If we have learned anything over the past three-and-a-half years under the current administration, it is that optimism is fast becoming a rare commodity among those of us who fear for the future of the nation. How reflexive it has become to shake our heads with incredulity as more straws of lies, deceit, and meanness are pilled upon our backs, straining our optimism to the edge of collapse. When we go to bed, how often do we lie there wondering just how bad tomorrow’s headlines will be? And when that morning comes with confirmation of yet another presidential or Congressional blow against our sanity and hope, don’t we wish for just one moment that the barnacles of pessimism that coat the hull of the American ship of state would fall away and let us sail forward with lighter spirits?

I have often written about how tenuous is our grip on democracy, how Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory, no longer swelling the chorus of the union, have been replaced by the bleating brass of this administration’s preference to rewrite history in his own image. It does not please me to forecast the subsidence of the foundation upon which all our laws, all our aspirations, all our civility have been constructed, and yet the evidence of such social and political decline is everywhere. But honestly, it is my skeptical nature that informs me of just how bad things are and helps me seek solutions — or seek those who can affect change in a positive way. My inner skepticism keeps my optimism sane.

Wishing it so does not make it so

Skepticism as a cure for what ails us may seem counter-intuitive at a time like this. Why stew over our troubles when a healthy application of optimism might lift us out of the doldrums and speed us on our way? Because that is not how optimism works. Whistling a happy tune, writing a check for charity, and smiling at every passerby may make one “feel” good, and may even be infectious, but happiness won’t fix a broken nation.

When repairs to the national will and social well-being are called for, put optimism aside (don’t throw it away…just put it on hold) and dig deep into your reserve of skepticism. Examine what is broken, review the conditions that got us here, put a clear, dispassionate eye on the possible remedies, and be willing to substitute what you want for what you need.

Breaking up is hard to do

That may mean discarding the candidate you like and replacing him or her with the candidate who can prevail in the all-out brawl which is just around the corner. Ask yourself, honestly, if your candidate’s campaigns, policies, and tactics are showing cracks around the edges or are cleaving even deeper. Be hard on them; tune out their soundbites, ads, and proxies and look at their core structural capabilities. Could they deliver the goods once elected? Are they coalition builders? How well do they bear honest criticism? Do their proposed plans have any budgetary chance? Are they already planning on spending more than they could ever raise? Are they capable of working with a divided, contentious Congress? Do they have America’s interests at heart? Not your interests, necessarily, but the nation’s? To use a rancher’s phrase, are they all hat and no cattle?

Apply a strong dose of skepticism to your review of where we are, how we got here, and what we might be able to do in the short and long term. Don’t just go back to November 2016 in your examination of the reason we are here; Trump is only the most recent — if not the most egregious — artifact of our national malaise and disarray. We did not get as deep in the hole as we are in less than one presidential term; it took decades of maladministration and misdirection.

This is not new, not by a long shot

Go back two, three, even four elections and look for the patterns of problems that remained unsolved by the elected leaders of both parties. Why aren’t our highways better? Why does poverty continue? Why is gun violence still rampant? Why did we not see the opioid epidemic looming to poison cities large and small? What the hell is going on with student debt? Why are health care and prescription costs punishing families and enriching the insurers with no end in sight? How have we come to the point where we’re accepting a normalized national economy in which the top 2% control so much wealth and billionaires are buying elections? Why are we not making progress in areas of gender and racial equality, and why haven’t we broken down the barriers to success for every person who has a goal, a dream, a vision for a better life? How have we become so polarized? Where is the hate coming from…and why? These are just some of the questions skeptics ask…not because they believe the problems are insoluble, but because they know there are problems and that no amount of happy emojis will make them go away.

It is hard to put on a skeptic’s hat; it doesn’t sit well on the head of an eternal optimist, and I say that from personal experience. But it is necessary in the search for solutions to problems that existed long before the current administration began. Optimism hasn’t ended racism. Optimism hasn’t secured equal opportunities and pay for all. Optimism hasn’t repaired our failing infrastructure. Optimism hasn’t banished hate. Optimism hasn’t stopped veteran suicides. Optimism hasn’t softened the hearts of divisive and selfish Senators or Representatives whose loyalty to country is in inverse proportion to their fear of losing an election. If you think an optimistic outlook is going to summit the mountain of problems looming over the nation, you are engaging in magical thinking.

An optimist believes everything will turn out fine. There are no barriers to the optimistic heart; a good attitude and a cheery disposition will mend the torn fabric of our stressed society. Perhaps that is true in a parallel universe; perhaps that was once true even in America. I am not inclined to bet that way.

Listen to the skeptics

My money is on the pragmatic skeptics among us. The ones who don’t count chickens until they are hatched, the ones who know the sticker price is never the final price, the ones whose operating philosophy is informed by Murphy’s Law — because we have seen over and over and over that what can go wrong, will most certainly go wrong in 21st century America. The skeptic knows the only way we will extricate ourselves from this feedback loop of daily disaster is to call out what is wrong and hold it up to the critical light of reality.

Only by assessing the damage that has been done to the nation by successive generations of inept or reckless leaders who had, or have, no pole star of morality or constellation of ethics to guide them will we have a fighting chance to find workable, affordable, ethical solutions to America’s existential problems. Once we face that reality — and only then — will our optimism come forward to sustain us in the work we must do.

Written by

Journalist, former Capitol Hill staff (House and Senate), former Cabinet speechwriter, editor, photojournalist and bird photographer. Top Writer Quora 2016–2017

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