Commentary Magazine


Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: William Kristol

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?


As Yogi Berra pointed out, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Even more so if, to quote Yogi again, “the future ain’t what it used to be.”

What the future used to be—or at least what it used to seem to be—was intelligible. The liberal account of the future was generally optimistic, and the optimism was based on a belief in the ineluctable course of history, or on faith in the victory of enlightened leaders and progressive movements over reactionary forces and premodern prejudices. There were basically two conservative accounts of the future. One was pessimistic, judging the distempers of modernity too powerful to resist successfully for long. The other was more optimistic, looking to the possibility of some sort of conservative restoration or awakening.

Today, who knows? Post-9/11, and postfinancial crisis, and post-postmodernism, the range of possible outcomes seems amazingly wide and the odds on any of them strikingly indeterminate. I suspect our thinking about the future isn’t yet radical enough, either analytically or prescriptively. “A new political science is needed for a world altogether new.” But saying that is one thing. Thinking with the breadth and depth of a Tocqueville about our present condition is another.

So should one be optimistic or pessimistic? God knows. But I do know that conservatives—indeed all friends of political liberty and American greatness—should, in the short term, be agonistic. They need to fight. Fight to defeat President Obama in 2012. Then fight in 2013 to repeal ObamaCare, to rebuild our defenses, to restore U.S. credibility abroad, and to establish fiscal, regulatory, and monetary sanity at home. That’s all difficult—but relatively simple.

Then the agenda gets more ambitious and less determinate. But more interesting.


William Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard.