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When I was a budding novelist, I quickly learned that the publishing world didn’t care about my aspirational goals. I had to conform to the publisher, not vice versa. As many positive thoughts as I lavished on my first novel, it never saw print because it wasn’t very good. Eventually I learned, over the 20-year process of writing three more unpublished novels, how to write fiction. It’s true that I probably wouldn’t have learned if I hadn’t believed in raw talent worth developing. Positive thinking, while it bridged no gaps, at least provided a launching platform. But between the dream and the realization was a long (like, 20-year) stretch of hard work.
For some time now, I’ve had the feeling that our culture is marked, not by positive thinking, but by magical thinking. Psychologically, “magical thinking” is the belief that one’s personal thoughts, fears, and goals influence the outside world. Young children indulge in magical thinking all the time: a child who prays every night that his parents will stop fighting, for instance, could feel he’s to blame when Mom and Dad stop the fights by splitting up. This is normal for kids, but a grownup who indulges in such fantasies is called schizophrenic. Or a politician.
You remember when Barack Obama, after winning the Democrat presidential nomination, inspired his followers with rhetoric about the day the oceans stopped rising. Or Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention: “I alone can fix.” Trump at least had actually built things with steel and concrete, while Obama had built nothing but his own persona. But both were overpromising based on a magical (or at least inflated) view of themselves in the world.
And remember how, during the Democratic debates an eon ago, Elizabeth Warren brought the hammer down on mild suggestions that there was no need to overhaul the entire health care system. You gotta dream big! If she ever got the chance to enact her Day-One agenda, “big” would have included canceling the Constitution as Step One, since much of what she wanted to do was clearly outside its parameters. Elaborate promises are nothing new in political campaigns, but the size and scope of this year’s Democrat vision is breathtaking. Bernie Sanders, likewise, seemed to think he could materialize his socialist dream by yelling about it.
DreamBig: The Next Generation is even farther out in the galaxy. Got Climate Change? Let’s just restructure our entire civilization. We won WWII, didn’t we?
“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it,” said everybody from Muhammad Ali to your kindergarten teacher. They never add that somewhere between Believe and Achieve is a lot of stuff: planning, coordinating, hard work, setbacks, tedium, failures, and thousands of details. Since we don’t dream in details, the gaps between here and there are too readily filled with magical thinking. And that leads to last-minute sloppiness and long-term incompetence, like the Obamacare website rollout and the 2020 Iowa caucus.
As we’re learning, a habit of magical thinking is extremely dangerous when a real crisis spills out like an escaped virus from a lab. Too much of the political class (I’m naming no names) has outsourced its brain to chosen experts and crossed its fingers and wished upon a vaccine that “the economy” (whose breadth and complexity they never came close to grasping) will somehow survive long enough to a) snap back to its former glory, or b) surrender to a total makeover. It’s not likely that either of those things will happen. More likely is a dysfunctional hybrid. What can we do with that? I’m still thinking.Published in