Mitch Horowitz: Reagan First President to Embrace Positive Thinking

Mitch Horowitz on Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot channel 125 discussed his new book One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.

The author told Breitbart News Executive Chairman and host Stephen K. Bannon that the idea of “positive thinking” has been a crucial but misunderstood concept in America. Bannon agreed and pointed out early in the program that from President Reagan’s outlook that “Nothing is Impossible” to Barack Obama’s “Yes we Can,” political campaigns have been “interwoven” with the concept of positive thinking.

Horowitz, a noted historian of spirituality, has written a serious and broad treatment on the history of the positive thinking movement. He asserts, for all its influence across popular culture, sales, religion, politics, and healing, this psycho-spiritual movement remains a maligned and misunderstood force in modern day life. 

Very early in American life, going back to the colonies, there was a motif in literature that was very practical. It would teach a way for how one could not only ascend in his spiritual life, but also in his social life. This idea of improving one’s thinking and conduct to advance in society began in the early writings of American authors such as Benjamin Franklin.

According to Horowitz, this type of thinking became fundamental not only to Americans at large, but also to their leaders. The first president to really embrace the art of “positive thinking” and make it a “political statement” was Ronald Reagan, conveying the concept from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. Horowitz commented that “[In] speech after speech, Reagan reiterated the idea that nothing is impossible.” He was criticized for it by the elites, but people understood what he meant and found it uplifting. Horowitz reminds us that Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon didn't communicate with these inspiring insights. He said, “Jimmy Carter didn't talk this way, but now every president talks this way... including Barack Obama.” Reagan changed everything when it comes to political rhetoric, Horowitz contends.

Some people feel that positive thinking is shallow, but the author urges us to take another look. “Barack Obama said that the piece of literature that most influenced him was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, 'Self-Reliance,'” he says. There might have been other presidents that were influenced by essays of this kind, “but not since Reagan did any President talk about it.”

Positive thinking is often undermined as being simplistic, but Horowitz asserts that it really is the “power of the individual to express himself.” Positive thinking contains within it a very unique American spiritual vision which is “the idea that religion should be practical and religions should serve as a basis for problem solving.” 

He cites that Norman Vincent Peale, who was widely derided in the intellectual culture, revealed that scripture is laden with ideas that the mind has “positive powers.” Horowitz defends Peale as someone who worked very hard laboring over scripture and was not mistaken in believing that it embodied a “Theology of Self Affirmation. It didn't replace the message of salvation but it augmented it.”


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