Within the established narrative of the West’s long crisis – call it adjustment, decline or transition – it is fascinating to examine the political mood swings that have characterized recent European and North American politics.
The Americans have, at least on the surface, swung from proponents of liberal values and resilience in the face of financial crisis to harbingers of protectionism and narrow nationalism; the British, formerly identified with Cool Britannia, have been overtaken by demands for withdrawal and parochialism.
Meanwhile, across the Channel, the Republic’s youngest president re-ignites France’s European passions and has the military band play Daft Punk on Bastille Day. Such was the fever pitch of ‘Macronmania’ in June that L’Express mocked up its cover as a teenage fan magazine: ‘He walks on water!’ As though the past few years of terror attacks and dwindling confidence in government and in Europe were swept away in a moment.
What are the ingredients that make for these turn-on-a-penny shifts towards collective optimism? What accounts for the spectacle (and it is undeniably an illusion) of an entire nation finding its mojo again?
Some would argue that it has to do with leadership; I’m old enough to remember Clinton in 1992 appearing on stage to ‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow’, to a collective sigh of relief; Blair inviting Oasis to Downing Street; and Obama, sleeves rolled-up, brandishing hope. These leaders were able to embody, or even channel, a nation’s imagining of its past, present and future. Perhaps even more importantly they made sense for the nation itself, and for outsiders, of its paradoxes − its most endearing and most irksome qualities achieving a momentary state of grace.
Macron transformed what can be France’s pedantic intellectualism into energetic questioning, or a people’s exasperating habit of thinking of itself as a ‘nation of Enlightenment’ into audacious Europeanism. It is not unlike falling in love: awkward habits become endearing, indeed irresistible, qualities. Once it stops, it is a bit like falling out of love: in the grey light of the-morning-after, the UK’s indomitable pragmatism turns to pettiness; charming American hokeyness into base crassness; France’s intellectual grandstanding could revert, Cinderella-like, into the pumpkin of indecision.
It’s tempting therefore to think of these moments of national optimism as being triggered by these personalities – but it is perhaps more interesting to think of these personalities as thrown up by the moment. Each idol of optimism appears, in retrospect, inevitable, as though the moment was crying out to be filled by them. That gives us a clue to the nature of these moments: they are in part a glimpse of possible change − and it is easier to imagine this change when it is embodied in a person. But we select them − the moments and their embodiment: our optimism is an act of will. The election of, and enthusiasm for, Macron is a case in point: a society plagued by polarization and immobility grants itself a moment of liberal imagination; Obama is another: a society plagued by racial division throws up a leader of measure and reconciliation.
Much of this, of course, is illusion − one person’s moment of optimism is another person’s vision of the political nadir. Yet the shocked global reactions to both the American election and the UK referendum give us another clue about optimism: optimism is about a moment in which you can persuade others to see you as you see yourself when you most like yourself. All of a sudden you are ‘all that you can be’ − and hey, everyone agrees.
This is what gives it the disturbing − and to those left out, irritating − quality of the over-confident teenager; optimism is oblivious by nature, a conviction of the many, regardless of the whole. Not even a conviction of the majority – but a conviction of those who can influence institutions and markets. In that respect, moments of political optimism feel generational, a coming of age.
Politically optimistic moments are therefore partly about leaders, partly about institutional capacity, partly about political will. It is interesting to note that they are, counterintuitively, not very much about events: optimism occurs when you might least expect it. And this is the final clue.
The kind of optimism we’ve been discussing is often taken as a sign of naivety or immaturity. In fact, it could be taken as the very opposite of that: as the triumph of reason over circumstance. It is the very opposite of TINA (There Is No Alternative) − and why populism and its handmaiden, common sense, with their lack of imagination and utopias, are so firmly in the camp of pessimism.