Why is the Left so Sad?


There was a time when liberals and the left-leaning were upbeat, optimistic, and enjoyed the fray. They were proudly “progressive.” Hubert Humphrey described himself as “a happy warrior.” Today? “Happy warriors” are harder to find. The planet is dying. White supremacy rules. And everyone is traumatized.

One element of Joe Biden’s out-of-touchness is that he seems to have missed the memo that to be left is to be sad, very sad. We are all victims. We have all been traumatized. But Joe, behind those aviator dark glasses, keeps smiling and telling us how good the economy is doing.

Meanwhile, for the thought leaders on the left, it’s bleak and not just on a day-to-day basis, but in the wide-angle historical frame as well. In a recent essay NYT columnist Ross Douthat took Ta’nehisi Coates as a sort of canary in the mine.

Douthat describes Coates, “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.”

But today’s Coates would certainly not be the “pundit-intellectual” of an Obama era where the Oval Office carpet carried Martin Luther King’s aphorism about “the arc of history bends toward justice.”

Coates has written, “I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice.” “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 don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does,” seems unlikely to get you out of bed in morning. And yet, that seems to be where a fair number of those on the left, especially the younger ones, are hanging out these days.

Douthat says that the left once had its roots and grounding in two great belief systems that provided a basis for hope. The Christian Social-Gospel of late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the historical dialectic of Marxist theory which envisioned capitalism’s contradictions leading to the triumph of the working class. For both, the arc of history did bend toward justice.

But today’s left has no larger context or vision. It is shattered into an infinite number of identity constituencies and is as grievance-ridden as the far right. As my grandmother used to say, “There is no way to make a whine sound attractive.”

Part of my work over the years has been to consult with once great, now declining, liberal and progressive congregations. The clergy and members seemed flummoxed about their aging and decline.

But maybe it isn’t all that big a mystery? The basic Sunday morning message is that the world is deeply unjust, most everything is pretty awful, and the world is divided into the oppressors and oppressed. Moreover, you — person in the pew — are probably among the oppressors by virtue of race, class or education. Nevertheless, you needed to put things to right by your ceaseless efforts. People stagger out of such sanctuaries as if under the weight of 65-pound backpack.

“You can’t tell people, Sunday after Sunday, how guilty they should feel or how bad they are, and then expect them to agents of change,” observed a colleague.

Insiders wondered, “why aren’t people flocking to our churches? We’re on the side of the angels, or at last of the enlightened.” Turns out, most people are already carrying their own 35-pound pack. They aren’t looking for a way to add another thirty pounds.

As Douthat points out, the left has lost its moorings in any larger story of hope.

The result is particularly felt among young people. “. . . 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.”

Douthat concludes, “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.”

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinsonhttps://www.anthonybrobinson.com/
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. This is a thoughtful, insightful piece.

    When I saw the word sad in the headline, I assumed the article was going to deride the Left, consider them pathetic. But I learned sad to mean blue or depressed. Those probably aren’t the right words to include in the headline either (both words come with their own baggage). So maybe a headline like “Why does the Left lack hope?” To my mind that best captures what Anthony Robinson was getting at.

  2. The difference between Hubert Humphrey and today’s leftists is that HH was happy simply to make people’s lives better, whereas today’s progressives want to “solve the underlying problem.” Well, most underlying problems would be “solved” if they were solvable.

    There is a crucial distinction in public policy between problems to be solved and conditions to be minimized and mitigated. A collapsed bridge is a problem to be solved—build a new bridge. Traffic congestion is a condition to be minimized and mitigated through many improvements to the transportation system. We will never “solve” congestion, but we can allow more people to get where they need to go in less time.

    Most of the concerns of the left fall into the category of conditions to be minimized or mitigated. Yet progressives can’t accept that. They want to solve the underlying problems that give rise to those conditions, and they get frustrated when they make little progress. Twenty years ago we had the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County. We have a program to get to zero traffic deaths, yet traffic deaths keep increasing.

    The Nirvana Fallacy kind of sums up a cause of leftist sadness. Don’t work within the world as it is, with all of its glorious beauty and terrible failings. Jump on that old arc of history and ride it to the perfect world. We can optimize humanity!

  3. Apparently everyone has their own idea of what “left” means, plus “progressive” which may or may not have its own meaning. I am bummed because I have no idea what this is all about – can’t imagine any reason why sane people would group differences of opinion over various unrelated matters into factional dogma, and can’t imagine why we’d be interested in opinions of those who are not sane.

    I agree with the comment above in only this one respect, that whatever faction Hubert Humphrey belonged to, it isn’t the same one as the Ta’nehisi Coates. Who “set the tone for progressivism’s trajectory” etc.? I don’t know, but I know I wouldn’t ask Ross Douthat that question.

    While it would irk me to have to call it “left”, the characteristic element of the factional divide I see in American politics, is responsibility, for things like social welfare, future generations, etc. That’s why polities where people recognize problems, want to solve them and feel they have the means to do so, generally lean in a particular way. Such people might occasionally have reason to feel gloomy these days, perhaps more than in Hubert Humphrey’s day.

  4. Remember, we recently went through 2020, with its global pandemic, economic and social devastations caused by said pandemic, a huge racial upheaval, and a president who never even tried to unite the country. The size of that combination of nastiness was the biggest since 1968. It’s going to take a long time to get the average person’s head, let alone those of any given political leaning, to feel anything close to calmness about society.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.