A Quick Observation: Cynics and Optimists in the Blogosphere

Recently my colleague Roy Eidelson and I each published articles in the blogosphere about our predictions and warnings for progressives in the wake of President Obama’s election.

We each wrote on a similar topic (mine is here and Roy’s is here). We had both started to write our respective pieces last fall after the election; completed them a couple of months later; and published them about two weeks apart in late February-early March, on the same website.

In my article, I warned against the inevitable moment of self-doubt and questions of identity that a newly empowered, post-election progressive movement will need to wrestle with. In his article, Roy outlined the reasons why we need to consider both how far we’ve come and how far we have to go in order to keep a balanced perspective in the face of the many serious problems that we have inherited from the Bush administration.

In characteristic fashion, Roy emphasized the need for cautious optimism in the face of bad news, while I emphasized the need for sobriety in the face of a major leap forward. But our messages were, at heart, actually quite similar. In addition, both of us presumed that we were addressing essentially the same group of progressives.

And then an interesting thing happened. As per usual, people commented on the blog threads following each of our articles. Notably, the people who commented on Roy’s article were optimists who felt offended by what they saw as Roy’s pessimism. Meanwhile, the cynics threw rocks at my article, calling me naïve for what they saw as my unwarranted optimism.

What each of these groups reacted to were the underlying assumptions of our respective articles. I took Obama’s election as an indicator of progressive progress. Roy took the country’s economic woes, and other legacies of the Bush years, as indicators of significant hardship. On their face, neither position seems especially radical. It is difficult to dispute that galvanizing the electorate and swearing in the first African-American president in history is not a substantial progressive victory that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Neither does it seem reasonable to suggest that our economic crisis and multiple ongoing wars, among other troubles, are anything less than dire conditions urgently in need of redress.

Nonetheless, in response to each of our articles, blog commenters by and large took issue not with the substance of the suggestions made by either Roy or myself, but with our premises for the each of the articles. On the one hand, Roy was told that he “must not be hanging around with the right people” if he believes that enthusiasm among progressives had already waned after the inauguration. None of Roy’s respondents saw a lack of enthusiasm for the President’s leadership, and identified such a position as holding unreasonably high expectations for Obama.

On the other hand, my position was acknowledged positively by some commenters, but was largely assailed by people who could not believe that electing Obama could be considered a progressive victory. These commenters were very unhappy with Obama’s pro-Wall Street leanings (which I agree are not progressive, and should be challenged), and dismissed all other evidence that progressives might be gaining ground. I was told, for example, “there is not a single progressive presence in [Obama’s] cabinet.” To these individuals, it is unreasonable to recognize forward movement of any kind until corporate corruption is permanently uprooted from our economy and politics.

What is interesting to me is this: Apparently, without meaning to, Roy was addressing my audience (the cynics in my thread, who are skeptical that anything will change), while I was addressing Roy’s audience (the optimists in Roy’s thread, who see Obama’s election as reason for hope).

In light of that observation, I am left to wonder: Why did cynics self-select to respond to my article, while optimists self-selected to respond to Roy’s article? Given that we’re talking about the same exact blog readership in both cases, it stands to reason that there must have been readers who agreed with the points I made, and readers who agreed with the points Roy made, who mostly kept silent about their agreement, while those who dissented to each of our points chose to publicly reply.

I have the distinct impression, based on this and other incidents, that what I’ve observed here is not by any means unusual for the progressive blogosphere. So I am left to ask, more broadly:

What does it mean for the progressive dialogue when there are a significant number of people who choose not to speak up unless they disagree with what they’re hearing? Why do we so often say nothing to each other publicly unless we have something critical to say, while we save our supportive comments largely for private conversation? If progressivism is really about empathy and responsibility to one another, how progressive is this kind of behavior, really?

Most importantly, why aren’t the cynics and optimists talking to each other instead of shouting at Roy and me?

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