Yves here. Many if not most people in America labor under the quaint misapprehension, stoked by the media as well as politicians themselves, that elected officials represent voters, as opposed to moneyed backers and other influential interests. As Thomas Neuburger explains longer form, those who describe these dynamics and their predictable results are often accused of pessimism (and why is pessimism bad?), cynicism, or the Newer Speak formulation, negativity.
As an aside, we are big fans of pessimism. See our 2008 Conference Review article, The Dark Side of Optimism.
By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies
A pessimist is what an optimist calls a realist.”
—Adapted from a line in the BBC series Yes, Minister
The question — Are you optimistic or pessimistic about our climate future? — is a loaded one. If you answer that you’re optimistic, you look like a fool. But pessimism, especially when applied to people’s attitude or personality, is a shame word, a word that subtly says that they’re something “wrong” or “unsunny” about you.
The implication is that this flaw is the source of your outlook, that your pessimism hijacked your brain. It’s never said this nakedly, at least not usually, but the overtone of words like “cynical” and “pessimistic” is clearly pejorative and meant to attack your views as groundless.
“Cynicism” and Democratic Party Politics
The distinction between what some would call “cynicism” and others “realism” is especially vibrant in the twin worlds of left-Democratic politics and climate activism.
In the world of left-Democratic politics, those working to create change from within the political system — people whose constant pressure is truly valuable, even necessary — often look at “they’ll always betray you” or “Lucy and the football” pessimists as detractions to their operation, gloomy Guses who discourage others from participating in the “Move Joe Manchin to the left” efforts they’re engaged in. They seem to assume that if you think the effort is almost impossible, you also think it shouldn’t be attempted — a conclusion that doesn’t follow from the premise.
But it’s a conclusion they often draw. So if you’re one of those who think the Joe Manchins of the world — and the Feinsteins, Pelosis and all the rest — might have evil motives instead of “inexplicable” ones … that thought is sometimes labeled “cynical” as though it’s not also grounded in fact.
But the facts are there for everyone to see. Is it “cynical” to think ill of Joe Manchin for this, or simply realistic?
Leaked Audio of Sen. Joe Manchin Call With Billionaire Donors Provides Rare Glimpse of Dealmaking on Filibuster and Jan. 6 Commission
Manchin urged big-money donors with No Labels to talk to Sen. Roy Blunt about flipping his vote on the commission in order to save the filibuster.
Joe Manchin, in a private call on Monday with a group of major donors, provided a revealing look at his political approach to some of the thorniest issues confronting lawmakers.
The remarks were given on a Zoom teleconference session that was obtained by The Intercept.
The meeting was hosted by the group No Labels, a big money operation co-founded by former Sen. Joe Lieberman that funnels high-net-worth donor money to conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans….
The call included several billionaire investors and corporate executives, among them Louis Bacon, chief executive of Moore Capital Management; Kenneth D. Tuchman, founder of global outsourcing company TeleTech; and Howard Marks, the head of Oaktree Capital, one of the largest private equity firms in the country. The Zoom participant log included a dial-in from Tudor Investment Corporation, the hedge fund founded by billionaire Paul Tudor Jones. Also present was a roster of heavy-hitting political influencers, including Republican consultant Ron Christie and Lieberman, who serves as a representative of No Labels and now advises corporate interests.
Manchin told the assembled donors that he needed help flipping a handful of Republicans from no to yes on the January 6 commission in order to strip the “far left” of their best argument against the filibuster. The filibuster is a critical priority for the donors on the call, as it bottles up progressive legislation that would hit their bottom lines. [emphasis added]
The article later says — I have no idea why, given the headline — that Manchin showed surprising openness to filibuster “reform.” But his opposition to it is also pretty naked. He hates the “far left” (his words) and wants to use big money donors to influence a Republican’s vote in order to negate the mockery his (cynical?) opponents deploy against his pro-corporate, anti-populist foot-dragging.
Should we call it “cynical” to look at Joe Manchin as an evil man serving naked wealth and his own well-nourished ego, or should we, with a much kindlier, more Manchin-friendly explanation, call him unexplainably confused? To ask, as this writer did, “What the f*ck is wrong with Joe Manchin?” is to claim to not know the answer, even when the answer is written in the news every day he’s in it.
I’m all for insider pressure on Manchin to convince him to “come around.” He needs to feel constant heat from every direction. That heat is critically important. But that’s just one element of the battle. I’m also for those who say, “While that’s going on, let’s do something more forceful — much more forceful.” Like take away, to the greatest extent we can, his wealth and reputation, and let him live a public pariah, to the last minute of his last day, for all the evil he’s done.
Maybe that’s the kind of convincing, the kind that understands his motives, he’ll listen to.
“Pessimism” and the Climate War
In the climate world the pressure to be “optimistic” is similarly present. The argument here, as in the political world, is that “pessimism” discourages climate action. “If you convince people they’re doomed,” the argument goes, “they’ll just give up … and then they will be doomed.”
But what if they’re already “doomed” to some degree? Should we then be asking them to act in ways that make little difference at all, or none?
According to this excellent recent report, for example, “A 5% annual reduction in emissions of a single greenhouse gas [for example, CO2 alone] — from 2020 and based on a middle-road emissions path — has no statistically significant effect on warming for more than two decades, as compared to a no-mitigation pathway.” [emphasis added]
On the other hand, “fast emission cuts are vital to flatten the warming curve.” (Full report PDF here.)
We are not on a “middle road emissions path.” We’re on the full-speed-ahead, no-mitigation pathway. And thanks to all the evil Joe Manchins of the world, we’re going to stay on that path till the rich abandon us.
Or, as one bold candidate for public office recently put it: