We live in a time of ideological convergence. Despite David Cameron’s recent return to a traditional Tory emphasis on individual morality, most voters would find it hard to distinguish the parties from their pronouncements or policies.
Maybe now the big divide is between optimists and pessimists. If so, the down in the mouth have a big lead in the polls. But there is something telling about the nature of our pessimism; instead of choosing between hope and despair there is a third way.
Opposition parties see their task as helping convince people the country is going to the dogs. Right now it couldn’t be an easier job. Gordon Brown may have the facts right when he says violent crime in down. Equally, it may be that there is no evidence of an increase in deaths from stabbing. Neither of these facts can stop the public perception of an epidemic of violence, seen as another symbol of our “broken society”.
And yet we are richer than ever before, better educated than ever before, we live longer lives, we are amongst the most racially tolerant and integrated country in the world, the streets of our inner cities are not only safer than a few years ago but a whole lot safer than Victorian times. For politicians to point this out runs the risk of being seen as complacent or out of touch, a political curse ever since Jim Callaghan was misquoted saying ‘crisis, what crisis?’
As I've said before, our social pessimism contrasts with personal optimism. Polls show that even when we overwhelmingly say the country is getting worse most of us predict that we will manage to do better. Personal over-confidence and social pessimism reflect the triumph of individualism and the decline of collective institutions. Our misleading perspective matters.
To take one well known example, an exaggerated fear of stranger danger means children don’t walk to school or play out, leading not only to less healthy and happy kids but also to less safe streets - and as one recent paper shows actually ends up putting the children themselves in more danger. One of the many problematic ways politics impacts on society is that social pessimism wins votes while contributing to exactly the woes it exaggerates.
Without dubious medical intervention we can’t turn pessimists into optimists. Nor is it easy to address the public despair personal hubris equation; it looks like an exaggerated sense of personal agency is a hard wired human condition.
But how about optimistic pessimism? Many of the biggest challenges we face are the consequence of past progress. We face a care crisis because we have become so much better at staying alive. We face a climate crisis because most parts of the world are getting quickly richer. The threats of globalisation are the flip side of its amazing opportunities.
Sure, we are in a stage of transition: unwilling to be governed but not yet willing to govern ourselves; no longer short of the bare essentials but unclear what we really need to live fulfilled lives; to say we are citizens of the world is as true as it is premature. But painful though transition is it can be the bridge to a better world.
Einstein was right you can’t use the same tools to solve problems that you used to create them. Social pessimism is an old tool. Can we remember a time when things weren’t what they used to be? To say our challenges are the result of progress is not to make them smaller. It helps us give us confidence that we can solve today’s problems and in so doing create a whole new set for our grandchildren.