An Election Season Briefing: Cultivating Optimism as a Habit of Mind

Text by Susan Scheid and used with permissionEarlier today, a friend posted on Facebook an article by Charlie Pierce, “This Thing Is Nowhere Near Over,” which sent me down a trail of my own thoughts about where this election is headed, and needs to head, right now.

Here, first, are a couple of thoughts about the Pierce article itself. The subheading for the article is “Trump has stumbled into a powerful line of rhetoric with 39 days to go.”

  • I’d say scripted, not stumbled; that is, the America First populist line is the script his “handlers” have been hoping he’d follow, à la Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth” speech, which you can hear here. Long’s brand of populism is what led FDR to remark at the time that Long was the second most dangerous man in America after General MacArthur.
  • I’m not so sure it brings DT any voters he doesn’t already have (which is of course too many).

Here, though, is the comment Pierce made that struck me most: “If Hillary Rodham Clinton could deliver those sentiments convincingly, this election wouldn’t be as close as it is.” I tend to think the people DT has in his corner wouldn’t, by and large, vote for a Democrat (though it’s true that Sanders’s brand of populism did appear to attract some of the same white male and uneducated white cohort).

The basis for my assumption, from articles here and there, is that Democrats have already lost much of this cohort to Republicans over time, and appeals to white (and white male) privilege and “fear of the other” have been and still are an essential part of the message that has lured them away. Add to this that the Democratic candidate is a woman and the current president is African-American, it can’t be surprising that this has further energized the basest instincts of this base base.

There’s something else as well. A friend of mine in the UK observed, from the vantage point of the Brexit vote, that he believes the poles are no longer “Left” and “Right,” but “Open” and “Closed.” I think he’s on to something there, and it’s going to be no simple task to get and stay on a positive track going forward.


For now, I don’t believe DT voters are reachable. In this regard, it’s worthwhile to note that Clinton began her campaign for President with a powerful economic message and got no press traction at all. In an excellent New York Times Magazine article, “Could Hillary Clinton Become the Champion of the 99 Percent?” this intriguing set of observations caught my eye:

The common view of the Democratic contest was that Sanders did a great service in pushing Clinton to the left. Though in some senses this was clearly the case — on the minimum wage and on college tuition — there was an alternate interpretation. As Sanders gained traction, it seemed to [Roosevelt Institute head Felicia] Wong and her partners that Clinton had simply ceded to him the territory of aggressive financial reform. Sanders, in their view, hadn’t so much pulled her to the left as pushed her to swivel.

The Roosevelt coalition agreed by and large with the direction of Sanders’s economic program, but they regretted the crudeness of his exposition. They understood, for example, the appeal of a call to break up the banks but found greater sophistication in Clinton’s proposals to regulate “shadow banking.” They wished his advisers had been more careful with the numbers. And the personal iconoclasm and moral purity of the Sanders campaign didn’t lend themselves to governance. How, given the way Obama’s ideals foundered on a kind of Washington default mode, did Sanders plan to staff an entire administration?

Wong and her allies spent a lot more time worrying about Donald Trump than they did valorizing Sanders. Their fear was, and is, that Clinton’s response to Trump’s faux populism, racism, xenophobia and misogyny — that we needed to make America not “great” but “whole” again — would crowd out everything she once said about corporations and inequality.

Clinton’s “Marshall Plan” for coal country also foundered on the rocks of media silence and negative press. Here’s a link to the NY Times article that came out at the time, and its title is indicative of the article’s negative approach: “Coal Country Is Wary of Hillary Clinton’s Pledge to Help.”

In the end, at least to my mind, Pierce doesn’t get to the bottom of the problem in his article. He tells us what worries him, and that’s appropriate, but there’s really nowhere to go with that except to worry about a problem that probably can’t be solved.

In understanding what the underlying problem is, it seems to me Krugman and Chait analyzed it best. As Krugman put it, citing Chait:

The media haven’t treated Clinton fibs as the equivalent of outright Trump lies; they have treated more or less innocuous Clintonisms as major scandals while whitewashing Trump. Put simply, until the past few days the media have had it in for Clinton; only now, at the last moment or possibly after the last moment, has the enormity of the sin begun to sink in.

Think about the Matt Lauer debacle. That wasn’t a case of false equivalence; a rough summary of his performance would be “Emails, emails, emails; yes, Mr. Trump, whatever you say, Mr. Trump.” One candidate was repeatedly harassed over something trivial, the other allowed to slide on grotesque falsehoods.

Or as Jonathan Chait says, the problem hasn’t just been the normalization of Trump, it has been the abnormalization of Clinton. Consider the AP report on the Clinton Foundation. An honest report would have said, ‘The foundation arguably creates the possibility of self-dealing and undue influence, but we’ve looked hard and haven’t found much of anything.’ Instead, the report played up meetings with a Nobel Peace Prize winner as being somehow scandalous.

And it’s still happening, if not quite so relentlessly. We’re still seeing reports about how something Clinton did ‘raises questions,’ ‘casts shadows,’ etc. – weasel words that allow reporters to write negative stories regardless of the facts.

Decades of abnormalization can’t be overcome in the short time left, but the issue can be mitigated, if all of us, and the media, would only focus on it. This is why I’m particularly concerned that, even though Clinton is now getting some good press, she’s not getting enough of it. As WaPo reported, “Despite the consensus that Clinton won the debate, Trump has received nearly three times the coverage that Clinton has received.”


The result is that we’re still not getting enough information on what to vote FOR and too much information about what to vote AGAINST. I see it on Facebook. When I post articles with substantive positive news about Clinton, generally only those who are already fervent Clinton supporters click “like”; in contrast, when I post DT articles, they generally suck up all the oxygen on my wall. And when I look at what comes in the feed, overall it’s still, with rare exceptions, fully loaded with DT.

What we need from the media, and what we need to be sharing around on social media and in conversation, are a lot more articles like the SF Chronicle’s “Clinton plans while Trump scoffs on water, environment”:

Water is almost a prism for the presidential race, illuminating the wildly different approaches Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump seemingly take to any gnarly issue.

Since the California primary in June, when Clinton cautiously sidestepped questions on the state’s five-year drought, she has laid out detailed policy positions on Western water issues that have surprised experts with their nuance but have gone almost completely unnoticed.

The same holds true on renewable energy, climate change, public lands and other environmental issues.

And here’s a really telling comment in the article: “It’s a remarkably well-written, comprehensive, thoughtful plan,” said Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute think tank and a resource scientist. “I hadn’t seen it before, I’m embarrassed to say … but I thought it was really spot-on.”


It wouldn’t be hard for the media to do a lot more of this. I, for one, would certainly welcome it. After all, Clinton has an entire book of plans, “Stronger Together,” each page of which could form the basis for an article like the SF Chronicle’s. Not a puff piece, but a serious examination of a serious proposal.

Instead, here’s how the New York Times reported out on the book: “Sales of Hillary Clinton’s New Book Are Off to a Slow Start.”  By the way, this article (including the headline, as I recall) is a cleaned-up version of what originally appeared. Wish I’d kept a copy of it, as the language from the original article was considerably more negative. And that original article, of course, is what was picked up and quoted repeatedly, including by Breitbart news. Here’s what the Times article originally said, in part:

Hillary Clinton’s newest book, “Stronger Together,” which provides a policy blueprint for where she hopes to take the country if she is elected president, sold just 2,912 copies in its first week on sale, according to Nielsen BookScan.

Both Mrs. Clinton and her running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, have promoted the book on the campaign trail, but the sales figure, which tallies about 80 percent of booksellers nationwide and does not include e-books, firmly makes the book what the publishing industry would consider a flop.

These books are never destined to be hit sellers, we all know that. And we all know they’re rarely read. But there is certainly nothing to prevent media looking for a substantive story from doing exactly what the SF Chronicle did.

The other huge problem allied to the closeness of the race that gets much too little notice is what happens down ticket if the win isn’t big enough. Toobin’s New Yorker article on the Supreme Court and lower judiciary appointments, “The Supreme Court After Scalia,” is excellent, a must read for even those of us who understand the importance of this issue. One thing I think he gets VERY wrong, however, is his view that, if the Senate stays Republican, Clinton has any viable chance even to get Garland through. Putting up someone else will be entirely out of the cards. (As an aside, I think Toobin’s analysis on the pros and cons of dumping Garland if the Senate does turn blue is incisive, particularly when one adds into the equation that the Senate will almost certainly not turn filibuster-proof blue.)

The Republicans know very well what it would mean to confirm even Garland, for all the reasons Toobin outlines, and it’s the one thing above all they are probably willing to stonewall all through a Clinton administration. There’s no doubt that this is a huge reason why we’re seeing dark money pour into the down ticket races:

[Senate Leadership Fund Super-Pac President Steven] Law’s confident assessment?‘ “I think we will hold the majority,” he said.

Altogether, the Senate Leadership Fund plans to spend $76 million in September and October — and the total could swell larger by Election Day, thanks to mega-donors such as Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, who gave the super PAC $20 million in August. The spending blitz comes after an allied nonprofit group, One Nation, shelled out $26 million on “issue ads” touting GOP candidates between last October and August. That organization is not required to disclose its contributors.

Law said donors have flocked to protect the Senate majority because they see the fight as a “concrete, achievable goal’”- and one in which outside spending can have a clear impact, unlike in the White House race, which is “much larger, more chaotic and harder to predict.”

I have been and remained concerned that this continued focus on all but the most substantive disclosures about Trump distracts us from what “our side” needs to spend all our efforts on from here on out, which is energizing those on “our side” and getting out the vote. There are more of “us” than there are of them, but we ALL have got to vote for Clinton and down-ticket Democrats/aligned independents. Yet even among the people I see on FB who are Clinton supporters, it remains almost all DT, all the time.

In my observation, all DT, all the time, energizes and inspires no one, but rather only adds to an already intolerable level of anxiety, fear, and disgust. As a former president rightly said, “Optimism is the beginning of progress.” To bring about change for the better, we can’t rest on recognizing that bad, nay disastrous, things will happen if the Congress remains Republican and, worse yet, Clinton doesn’t win.

Optimism, as the same former president said, is a habit of mind—and we’ve each got to cultivate it. Pessimism not only breeds paralysis and inaction, but also can become an excuse for it. Optimism, in stark contrast, breeds hope. What we’ve got to do now is to believe—to truly believe—that good things can happen if Clinton, and a Congress she can work with, are elected. Even though each of us can only affect this one-on-one, we can play a part.

If each person to whom we pass on helpful information and inspiration passes it on to others, there can and will be a multiplier effect.


  1. Ingrid Nyeboe:

    Good stuff here. The really short answer to everything you et al raise up is: junk journalism makes more money than high standard journalism AND underlying it all: HATRED OF WOMEN. I know that latter one is a tough one, and probably a great many people will deny it. BUT FOR ME, AS AN OUTSIDER, IT’S PAINFULLY OBVIOUS–ALWAYS HAS BEEN!

    • Susan Scheid:

      Hi, Ingrid: Thanks for weighing in. At this point, what I’m most concerned about is purely pragmatic. Just in personal terms, I really don’t need another scrap of information about DT and his ilk. Just this morning, every single article but one I received in my e-mail compendiums of articles was about DT. What I want and would like to share are articles like the one in the SF Chronicle I note in the post, which is an actual discussion of a Clinton proposal, and they are ridiculously hard to find. As a counter to that, I want to encourage all my friends who spot such articles to share them around. I would gladly pick them up and put them on my wall.

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