Monday, October 15, 2007

Americans need to be honest with themselves before breaking out of the current mood of pessimism

Gary Younge on the growing pessimism of the American public:
America's self-image as the home of unrelenting progress - a nation of historic purpose and unrivalled opportunity where tomorrow will always be better than today - is the linchpin of its political and popular culture. Optimism, it seems, is a truly renewable national resource. It was used to build Bill Clinton's "bridge to the 21st century" in 1992, and powered the alarm clocks for Reagan's "new morning in America".

"The American, by nature, is optimistic," said John F Kennedy. "He is experimental, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly." This optimism is the source for much of what makes the US simultaneously so revered and reviled, dynamic and deluded, around the world.

On one hand it articulates a hope, bordering on certainty, that a better world is not just feasible but already in the making. Released from the hogties of tradition and formality, such confidence is driven by possibility rather than the past. Winston Churchill once said he "preferred the past to the present and the present to the future". An American politician who wanted to get elected would say precisely the opposite. This optimism underpins the notions of class fluidity and personal reinvention at the core of the American dream. Where others might ask "Why?", it asks "Why not?". Such is the root of so much that is great about America's economy, culture and politics.

On the other hand this optimism has within it the notion that the US is the exclusive repository of these hopes and the sole means by which a better world can be made. Unfettered by history, consensus or empirical evidence, it is driven by myth rather than material circumstances. Even as class rigidity entrenches and personal reinvention slips, the dream remains. Like Stephen Colbert's spoof of George Bush, it has the capacity to "believe the same thing Wednesday that [it] believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday". It posits America as the world's future whether the world wants it or not. Such is the root of so much that is terrible about America's economy, politics and foreign policy.

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 American public have lost faith. The rot starts at the top. Almost as soon as they elected Bush in 2004 they seemed to regret it. Since Katrina, his favourability ratings have been stuck in the 30s and show no signs of moving - or at least not upwards. Bush's only comfort is that public approval of the Democratically controlled Congress is even worse, hovering just below where it was shortly before the 2006 elections. In other words, however Americans believe their country will return to the right track, they no longer trust politicians to get them there.

Little suggests that anything will change any time soon. After four years of being told they were winning a war they have been losing and are better off when they are not, Americans are more wary of political happy talk than they have been for a long time. But that doesn't mean they want to hear sad talk instead, even if it happens to be true. For the central problem is not that they were lied to - though that of course is a problem - but that they have constantly found some of these lies more palatable than the truth. Bush may have exploited the more problematic aspects of this optimism. But he did not create them. Enough of the American public had to be prepared to meet him halfway to make his agenda possible.

Herein lies the challenge for the presidential candidates in the coming year - how to respond to this pessimistic mood without reflecting or discussing its root causes: to lay out a plausible explanation of how Americans can get their groove back, without examining how they got in this rut in the first place.

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