American Pessimism

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3/30/19

The Muller investigation is finally concluded, but it’s hard to say that anything is really settled.  In the opinion of the Washington Post, fallout and follow-up to the report is, “… likely to propel Washington into a period of prolonged and even more heightened partisan combat.”    

Oh, great.  But how long is “prolonged”?  Multiple years?  Maybe even decades? 

As a nation, we seem to expect the worst. For example, late last year the Pew Research Center asked Americans to predict what our nation would look like in the year 2050.  (Sure, many of us won’t be around to find out—and that may be a fortunate thing. But countless kids and grandkids will.)

Overall, 68% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say the political divide will be worse in 30 years than it is now (hey, look--we can agree on something!)  In a separate study, 77% of Americans aged 65 or older—in other words, those old enough to remember—say that things right now are as bad or worse as during the Vietnam War—the benchmark in living memory for a country seeming ready to burst at its cultural seams.

The Pew study gets more intriguing if you dig into people’s reasons for their pessimism:

(1) Money Matters.  By 2050, 73% of Americans think the gap between rich and poor will be wider than it is now.  Structurally, 46% say the middle class will shrink even further, while 28% believe it will grow.  And on an individual level, 49% expect there to be less job security, compared to 14% who say more.

(2) The Top Three.  Maybe surprisingly, among the choices offered by Pew, both Democrats and Republicans agreed on the three things that are most needed to improve quality of life:

 
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While this might look like a form of consensus, the problem here is a vast difference between party voters.  Across the board, Republicans see virtually all issues as significantly less important than their Democratic counterparts.  And nowhere is this more apparent than with climate change.  This is a deep concern for 42% of Dems…but only 13% of Republicans.  In 2016, Gallup had the split even wider—75% to 27%.


(3) Who can fix this?  Aside from Vladimir Putin, no one really wants our country to be this divided.  But who do we think can solve all this? (again, from Pew):

 
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In other words, more than half of us see no one or nothing capable of fixing things. So, it’s hard to argue that the country isn’t toxic--and getting worse. For example, soon after JFK was shot, 77% of Americans said they trusted the federal government. That plunged during the inflation-scarred 80’s…but in the wake of 9/11, 60% of us still believed Washington was working in our interests.
 
Today, that number is 18%.
 
The fundamental poison is this lack of trust. Cynicism and suspicion have been injected deeply into the veins of the body politic. Relentless forces are at work to divide us.
 
Certainly, there is violent disagreement on who’s to blame. But right now, few would say that America is great again--and we don’t expect it to be anytime soon.