This is eminently reasonable and impossible to disagree with. The recent housing bubble, for instance, was undoubtedly caused by an excess of optimism. Had we had some vigilant realists running our country’s banks, we would all be much better off today. The problem is that Ehrenreich doesn’t really do much to clarify the difference between realism and depression, or realism and Pollyanaism. Instead, she just declares herself a realist, and in doing so presents her judgments about the state of the world as in some sense value-neutral. Yet clearly the bleakness with which she views the modern world has as much to do with her politics and values as it does with reality.
Consider, for instance, Gregg Easterbrook’s Sonic Boom. Easterbrook’s take on the world is almost directly opposed to Ehrenreich’s in two crucial ways. First, far from suggesting that we’re deluged by positive thinking, he argues that the public reaction to the dramatic economic and social changes of recent decades has been overly negative. Second, he argues that, on the whole, these changes have been for the better. “The larger context of recent generations has been persistent focus on the negative, with little heed paid to the positive,” Easterbrook writes. “To achieve perspective, both positive and negative must be considered. There’s an ample supply of negative. Yet most underlying global forces have been mainly good in recent decades.” Ehrenreich, by contrast, asserts exactly the opposite: “Has the human outlook really been improving over time? For affluent individuals in peaceful settings, decidedly yes, but our overall situation is as perilous as it has ever been.”
Yes, they both live on the same planet, and yes, they both have evidence to back up their claims. Ehrenreich points to global warming, the potential arrival of peak oil, the extinction of species, and the persistence of poverty as proof that things have not been getting any better. Easterbrook points to the fact that the percentage of the world’s population living in absolute poverty has dropped sharply in recent years, with hundreds of millions of people in China and India making their way into the middle class. Democracy is spreading across the world. There are actually fewer wars, not more. In the developed countries, the air and water are cleaner than they’ve been in many decades, and in the U.S., life expectancy, education levels, environmental quality, and personal freedom have all continued to increase. He concedes that the changes wrought by globalization and new technologies have come at a cost—increased anxiety and volatility, and less security for people in the developed world. But if you look at the global picture, on balance, he argues, these changes have been for the better.
You can make your own judgment as to whose picture of the world is more convincing (certainly Easterbrook is sailing into a stiff wind, given the current state of the world economy). The important point is that Easterbrook’s argument in this book, like Ehrenreich’s, can plausibly be thought of as realist. He’s not a positive thinker in the “wishing makes it so” sense. He spends a good deal of time in Sonic Boom on the downside of societal change, and on the need for policy to deal with it. And his disagreements with Ehrenreich don’t stem from a belief in mind over matter. Instead, they reflect profound differences of opinion about how one should evaluate social outcomes, and balance improvements in one area of life against declines in others. And those are not differences that an appeal to “realism” can resolve.
In that sense, Ehrenreich overplays her hand. Bright-Sided ultimately seems to suggest that optimism itself is a kind of false consciousness, which keeps Americans from seeing the grimness of their situation and the need to collectively change it. But while the author is right to inveigh against magical claptrap, it’s far from clear that if Americans do abandon their penchant for positive thinking, they’re going to adopt Ehrenreich’s dark view of, say, the nature of capitalism. After all, you can enjoy her demolition of the positive thinkers, and believe that motivational speakers are purveyors of nonsense, and still be an optimist. Sometimes, at least, realism is in the eye of the beholder.