Half-Full of It

The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think BY Ruy Teixeira. St. Martin's Press. Hardcover, 272 pages. $26.

The cover of The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think

Most adults don’t have much use for physicians under the impression that dispensing the occasional lollipop is vital to keeping the patient cooperative. Even before The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think (St. Martin’s Press, $27) has properly gotten under way, author Ruy Teixeira doesn’t do himself any favors on that score. A dedication whose raised-fist summons to solidarity would have been at home on a 1930s Popular Front banner—“For the broad left and the struggle for a better future”—is followed by this kindergarten postscript: “Oh, and by the way, cheer up!”

Gee, thanks. We libtard snowflakes laboring to convert ourselves into snowplows in the Trump era get enough turn-that-frown-upside-down lectures from Rebecca Solnit. But Teixeira’s relentlessly sunny thesis is almost touchingly unconcerned with mundane matters like surviving the next four years or winning the next couple of elections. While he’s managed to work in a few belated and somewhat confusing mentions of Trump’s win, the book was evidently conceived and probably mostly written before Election Day 2016 turned everything into a triumph of the swill.

When you take the long view the way Teixeira does, Trump’s reign is a minor glitch anyway. When he invokes “the twenty-first century,” he doesn’t mean this particular trench-warfare tranche of it. He means the whole megillah, including what’ll happen after the bulk of his readers die. According to him, at some unspecified date before 2100 CE, everything will come up roses with the inevitable victory of what he calls the “opportunity state,” which will make all our progressive dreams come true.

Even though he’s at pains to dissociate his nostrums from yesteryear’s failed panaceas, Teixeira’s “opportunity state” looks a lot like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s “Third Way,” supplemented by a revival of Keynesian governmental pump-priming and with plenty of multicultural confetti thrown in. Because socialism is “off the table” as a workable system and “we appear to be stuck with capitalism, warts and all,” Teixeira wants the Left to embrace globalization’s benefits instead of mistrusting its adverse consequences. So long as it’s sensibly managed and channeled, the prosperity that will ensue guarantees the success of the Left’s other goals, from reduced economic inequality to improved human rights for all.

That’s why the Left, instead of trying to protect the welfare state’s tattered safety net, should be boosting a program of “opportunity.” To wit, the interlinked benefits of “the acquisition and use of education; the development of new economic sectors that can provide high-skill, high-wage jobs; investment in infrastructure that can support rising economic sectors and the transition to a green economy; the provision of public amenities; and the achievement and maintenance of full employment.” How he left out turning McDonald’s vegan is anyone’s guess.

The keystone of Teixeira’s argument is that progressive policies flourish when times are good, with the acknowledged “Great Exception” of FDR’s New Deal. Lyndon Johnson’s pre-Vietnam legislative track record is proof he’s not entirely wrong. Nonetheless, it’s scarcely what you’d call a hard-and-fast rule, since boom times under Reagan—artificially juiced by promiscuous borrowing—hardly produced a new liberal consensus. Neither did Clinton-era prosperity, let alone Obama’s carefully managed recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. In the latter two cases, capable economic stewardship gave these Democratic presidents no leverage whatsoever to pursue an ambitious social agenda, aside from Obama’s passage of the Affordable Care Act before the 2010 elections gave the GOP enough Capitol Hill muscle to stymie him from then on.

Teixeira offers no explanation for how these obdurate political realities will vanish, other than that familiar cure-all: changing demographics, including the ascendancy of reliably “left-leaning” millennials. He doesn’t seem to notice that the statistics he cites actually show the Democrats’ share of the millennial vote dropping by 11 percent between 2008 and 2016, from 66 percent for Obama in 2008 to 55 percent for Hillary Clinton eight years later. Recommending that we give up on “the traditional working class” as a force for progress—bye, you Rust Belt schmucks—he imagines a new coalition of college-educated professionals, minority voters, and forward-thinking young people seizing the day. It’s rather unfortunate that this scenario duplicates the disastrous electoral blueprint for Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

What’s frustrating is that Teixeira can be an informative and concise writer when he’s elucidating current economic and social trends without trying to refashion them into rainbows with pots of pink-hued gold at the end. Readers daunted by the prospect of plowing through Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century will be grateful for The Optimistic Leftist’s informed summary of Piketty’s findings, for instance. When he goes into bubbly prophecy mode, however, he overdoes the lollipop interjections for civilians: “But that’s not all!” and “Not too shabby.” Wanting to sound genial turns him insipid.

You’ll also be relieved to hear that the opportunity-state paradise he envisions replacing today’s dystopia will come to pass simply because there’s no reasonable alternative. In other words, Teixeira recycles the easily refutable liberal fantasy that having superior arguments is all that matters. One loses track of how often Panglossian formulas like “It’s time,” “The left will have no choice but to promote the opportunity state,” or “The case is so overwhelming that it will eventually carry the day” take the place of wrestling with the nuts-and-bolts practicalities involved in pursuing any political goal against powerful, tenacious opposition, the Left’s own multiple schisms included. As a result, Teixeira’s irritating, intermittently interesting how-to manual’s worst failing is that it’s all “to” and no “how.”

Tom Carson is a freelance critic and the author of the novel Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (Paycock, 2011).