America: Land of Pessimism?

Americans are a grumbling, sullen lot these days. Almost three out of four of us believe that the country is on “the wrong track.” Both the Republican President and the Democratic Congress are about as popular as Osama at a tent revival meeting. The front runners for the respective party’s nomination for President – Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton – have elicited feelings of unease and outright hostility in some party quarters, with some activists even going so far as to entertain notions of supporting a third party candidate.


There’s been a lot of hand wringing about the length of the campaign, the mind- numbing nature and number of debates, the amount of money being raised, and the lack of enthusiasm for politics in general – an ennui born out of the endless, partisan bickering, backbiting, and backstabbing that neither party has demonstrated a willingness or desire to stop.

Then there’s the internet, which is not a very pleasant place to be of late. Not that it’s ever a garden spot of peace and harmony, but these last weeks have seen some of the nastiest, most vile attacks back and forth about a variety of domestic and foreign issues with snark at a premium and outrageous charges of the most horrifically personal kind being hurled across the great divide.

In short, America is singin’ the blues. We seem trapped by our own low expectations about government and politics to the point that a broad and disturbing cynicism has descended across the land. This is completely out of character for a nation that prides itself on being defined as the most optimistic country on the planet.

This mood has not escaped the notice of rest of the world. An article in The Guardian summed up the view from across the Atlantic:

This sense of optimism has been in retreat in almost every sense over the past few years. According to Rasmussen polls, just 21% of Americans believe the country is on the right track, a figure that has fallen by more than a half since the presidential election of 2004. Meanwhile only a third think the country’s best days are yet to come, as opposed to 43% who believe they have come and gone – again a steep decline on three years ago. These are not one-offs. In the past 18 months almost every poll that has asked Americans about their country’s direction has produced among the most pessimistic responses on record – a more extended period than anyone can remember since Watergate.

America, in short, is in a deep funk. Far from feeling hopeful, it appears fearful of the outside world and despondent about its own future. Not only do most believe tomorrow will be worse than today, they also feel that there is little that can be done about it…

The sense that things will improve for the next generation has all but evaporated. Another Pew poll from last year found that only 34% of Americans expected today’s children to be better off than people are now – down from 55% shortly before President Bush came to power.


So what can we do about it? Is there anything in the national medicine cabinet we can take that will give us a boost? Any comfort food we could eat that would snap us out of it? Sausage pizza with extra cheese and Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey always does it for me.

There isn’t enough Xanax made or ice cream churned that could treat what ails us. That’s because the cause of our national melancholy could very well be history herself. Clio, the muse of history, has been a busy babe these last six years. America attacked and at war in two places while fighting shadow conflicts in a dozen others. A changing economy struggling with the challenges posed by globalization and emerging powers like China. Oil prices rocketing toward $100 a barrel with $5.00 per gallon for gas not far behind. Worries about health care, about our jobs, about our kid’s safety – all contribute to this feeling of being weighed down by the times.

It’s 1980 all over again. Back then, it was also the rush of events that caused Americans to temporarily stop believing in themselves and view the future with fear and trepidation. The triple whammy of high interest rates, high inflation, and high unemployment combined with hostages in Iran, the old Soviet Union on the march in Afghanistan and elsewhere, along with the sinking feeling that America had experienced its best days already – a feeling fed by politicians as it is today – and that we had to learn to live with less all contributed to the a “malaise” felt by many citizens.


And as long as we’re talking about “malaise,” how much more in the dumps could the United States get than 1932 when people had lost faith in everything about America, from her economic system to the belief in democracy as the engine of progress? Banks failing, unemployment soaring, soup lines, record foreclosures, and to top everything off, nature herself began to betray us as the dust storms began to blow the fertile soil of the plains into the Atlantic Ocean.

How did we escape? We simply re-invented ourselves. And if you notice that both 1932 and 1980 were election years, you can probably guess how we did it.

We’re still the only nation on earth that can will ourselves to become a different place just by changing the political scenery. It’s not so much which party comes to power as it is the feeling of turning over the sod and refreshing the soil. It’s almost as if changing the party in power gives us permission to change our outlook, to begin to look to the future again with optimism and hope. It’s happened many times before. There’s no reason to believe it won’t happen again.

No one has ever made a living selling America short. Those who’ve tried have ended up being remembered for how spectacularly wrong they were. It’s not hubris or wishful thinking to believe that, in a few years, we will be chuckling at the author of the piece above, wondering how anyone could have ever been so stupid as to believe that any one party or presidency could permanently damage the American spirit.


All the signs point to a dramatic change coming to Washington a little more than a year from now. A lot can happen between now and then that may alter the personalities involved in this mini-revolution. But I think the writing is on the wall that no matter who is elected, things are going to be different.

Chalk it up to my native optimism if you wish. But I’ve got 232 years of history on my side. And the naysayers haven’t been right yet.

Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.


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