Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 6 April 2024


Can the Left Be Happy?

A photo illustration of a yellow smiley-face Popsicle in front of a light green background. The Popsicle is dripping.
Credit... Jamie Chung/Trunk Archive

Opinion Columnist

A crucial moment in the development of modern left-wing culture arrived some time in 2013, when Ta-Nehisi Coates, reading books about the ravages and aftermath of World War II by the historians Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, realized that he didn’t believe in God.

“I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice,” Coates wrote for The Atlantic then. “I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos … I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.”

I apologize for pinning so much on one writer’s existential crisis. But it’s fair to describe the author of “The Case for Reparations” and “Between the World and Me” as the defining pundit-intellectual of the late Obama era, the writer whose work on race and American life set the tone for progressivism’s trajectory throughout the Trump years and into the great “racial reckoning” of 2020 (by which time Coates had made an enviable escape to fiction).

And in his crisis of faith, his refusal of optimism, you see the question that has hung over left-wing culture throughout a period in which its influence over many American institutions has markedly increased: Does it make any sense for a left-winger to be happy?

The left-wing temperament is, by nature, unhappier than the moderate and conservative alternatives. The refusal of contentment is essential to radical politics; the desire to take the givens of the world and make something better out of them is always going to be linked to less relaxed gratitude, than to more of a discontented itch.

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But the 20th century left had two very different anchors in a fundamental optimism: the Christianity of the American social gospel tradition, which influenced New Deal liberalism and infused the civil rights movement, and the Marxist conviction that the iron logic of historical development would eventually bring about a secular utopia — trust the science (of socialism)!

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What’s notable about the left in the 2020s is that neither anchor is there anymore. The secularization of left-wing politics has made the kind of Christian-inflected cosmic optimism that still defined, say, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign seem increasingly irrelevant or cringe-worthy. Meanwhile, the revival of Marxism and socialism has not been accompanied by any obvious recovery of faith in a Marxist science of history. I know many people on the left who think Marx was right about capitalism’s contradictions; I know many fewer who share his expectation that the dialectic will yield a worker’s paradise.

Instead you have a fear that when “late capitalism” crashes, it will probably take everybody down with it, a sense we should be “learning to die” as the climate crisis worsens, a belief in white supremacy as an original sin without the clear promise of redemption.

For the stern-minded, pessimism of the intellect can coexist with optimism of the will. “I’m also not a cynic,” Coates wrote in the same 2013 essay. “Those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us.”

But it should not be a surprise that some of those “night travelers on a great tundra” might incline a bit more than past left-wingers to despair. Nor should it be a surprise that amid the recent trend toward increasing youth unhappiness, the left-right happiness gap is wider than before — that whatever is making young people unhappier (be it smartphones, climate change, secularism or populism), the effect is magnified the further left you go.

The smartphone theory of increasing youth unhappiness has been especially in the news this past week, thanks to Jonathan Haidt’s new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.” And it’s been striking how certain critiques of Haidt’s theory from the left seem to object to the idea that youth unhappiness could be anything but rational and natural.

Take the prominent review for Nature by a child development scholar, Candice L. Odgers, which cited American “access to guns, exposure to violence, structural discrimination and racism, sexism and sexual abuse, the opioid epidemic, economic hardship and social isolation” as plausible causal alternatives to Haidt’s social-media diagnosis.

The tone of the review suggested that kids really ought to be a bit depressed. Wouldn’t you be, growing up amid “school shootings and increasing unrest because of racial and sexual discrimination and violence”? And for an answer to this unhappiness, with neither Providence nor scientific socialism available, Odgers turned to the therapeutic process, lamenting the dearth of school psychologists to help kids process “their symptoms and mental-health struggles.”

This seems like where a good portion of the American left finds itself today: comforted by neither God nor history, and hoping vaguely that therapy can take their place.

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Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author, most recently, of “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.” @DouthatNYT  Facebook

A version of this article appears in print on April 7, 2024, Section SR, Page 2 of the New York edition with the headline: Can Those On the Left Be Happy?Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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