February 23, 2018

MICHAEL BARONE: Don’t take the Onion’s pessimism too seriously.

“Study: 90 percent of Americans Strongly Opposed To Each Other.” That’s the headline on a story in what on some days seems America’s most reliable news outlet, the Onion.

We laugh (or at least I did) because it strikes a chord. Americans of many different political outlooks today seem united in believing that we are experiencing the worst times in the nation’s history. Trump detractors talk about a neurotic Nazi establishing a dictatorship. Trump fans talk about a “Deep State” using secret protocols to undermine the voters’ choice.

Both sides have some cause for complaint. But their claims are overheated. Anyone familiar with the long course of American history — perhaps a smaller category than in times past — knows that, whatever our problems, things have been far worse before.

Many of us look back to a time when Americans shared a consensus on cultural values, and when we were told that high school graduates or even dropouts could easily snag well-paying blue collar jobs. That’s a reasonably accurate description of America in the 1950s on cultural values and of parts of America—the unionized industrial North—on those jobs.

President Trump’s unspecific slogan “Make America Great Again” probably strikes most listeners as a promise to restore the seemingly culturally unified America of the two post-World War II decades. Democrats’ calls for strengthening labor unions and job protections likewise evoke the 1950s, the time of peak union membership.

But this was a short period — I call it the Midcentury Moment — and the exception rather than the rule in American history. That tends to get overlooked by those lamenting polls showing low confidence in institutions. The benchmarks against which they are measured are inevitably when pollsters first asked those questions in the 1950s.

But that was a time when big institutions — big government, big corporations, big unions — had just finished leading Americans to victory in a world war and to unanticipated prosperity in the years that followed. They had arguably earned the confidence they enjoyed.

If you had been able to ask Americans those questions in the years before Gallup conducted his first poll in 1935, it’s likely that they would often have expressed low confidence, as they did starting in the late 1960s.

And those institutions haven’t exactly covered themselves with glory since. One problem is that the people running them care more for the high regard of their peer group than for the fortunes of the institutions they are entrusted with.