Resolving the Contradictions in the National Mood

Posted: Mar 26, 2008 12:01 AM
Resolving the Contradictions in the National Mood

In the midst of this furiously competitive electoral season, public attitudes perplex prognosticators with their glaring and irrational contradictions. The only sure bet seems to be that the inauguration of a new president will help to resolve those contradictions and, regardless or his (or – gulp! – her) identity, will most likely move the mood in a more optimistic direction.

“Change” is the most important single word in the presidential campaign at the same time that most people like their lives just as they are. Whenever ordinary Americans get the chance to register their opinions, they say they feel pleased about their private lives, but report a sense of unease and frustration concerning the nation at large. Though presidential elections theoretically inspire “hope” (another big word along the campaign trail) with the possibility of fresh leadership, the unique circumstances of this particular campaign cycle serve to intensify the gap between personal contentment and public pessimism.

At the beginning of the year, the Gallup Poll (with responses gathered between December 6 and 9, 2007) showed that Americans remain a remarkably happy and satisfied people. A stunning 92% reported themselves “very happy” or “fairly happy,” while a mere 6% claimed the label “not too happy.” Moreover, by a ratio of exactly six to one, respondents said they are satisfied with their personal lives as opposed to dissatisfied (84% to 14%). Surprisingly, the percentage who reported the highest level of contentment (“very satisfied”) with their private situations actually soared between December 2006 and December 2007 – from 55% to 59%. Despite the widespread, nearly universal assumption that the nation faces a moment of hardship, insecurity and danger, the personal satisfaction level remains distinctly above the already high average recorded over the 29 years Gallup’s been asking the same questions in the poll.

Nevertheless, the same survey that shows a singularly sunny view of our intimate arrangements indicates a vastly more negative attitude toward the general situation in society: only 27% of Americans report they are “very satisfied” or even “somewhat satisfied” with the way things are going in the United States at large. As the Gallup organization reports, there is “a vivid contrast between Americans’ view of things ‘out there’ across the country and their view of their own personal lives.” By the same token, there’s a startling contrast according to the most recent polling between assessments of the current economic situation (where three-fourths say the economy is “bad”) and the expectations by the same respondents of the likely conditions a year from today (where two thirds expect things to be “good.”)

As Stephen J. Rose and Anne Kim summarized current public sentiment in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal: “Most people think the economy is in poor shape and worry about potential misfortune. But this sour mood and their worries are tempered by a strong appraisal of their own financial situation and a low evaluation of personal risk. For example, only 15% think that it is at least somewhat likely that they could be laid off next year. Even in the most recent polls, over two-thirds of Americans describe the financial situation and standard of living as either good or excellent.” (March 25, 2008)

If a famous self-help book by Dr. Thomas Harris once proclaimed, “I’m OK, You’re OK” the current attitude seems to suggest “I’m OK, but You’re in Deep Trouble.” Increasingly, we tend to see ourselves as tiny islands of sanity and satisfaction in the midst of vast, raging seas of misery and trouble. But the very prevalence of happy families (yes, married people report sharply higher levels of happiness than singles) and religiously committed households (with recent studies documenting the much greater likelihood of satisfaction) indicates that those of us who feel blessed and fortunate hardly count as isolated. We are, in fact, the rule rather than the exception.

How, then, can we explain the gloomy public mood in a nation that’s actually filled with cheerful, optimistic individuals?

Two related forces—media and politics-- work powerfully to persuade people that the rest of the country is worse off than their private realities would suggest. Television naturally focuses on dramatic horrors – wars, crimes, natural disasters, economic threats, corruption of all sorts, and other disturbing (and usually riveting) subjects. The daily emphasis on dysfunction and danger encourages the public to exaggerate every problem, no matter how unusual or unrepresentative it may be. “Man Bites Dog” becomes big news, but “Man Pets Dog” will never get headlines or ratings.

Politicians naturally revel in the fact that the news business has actually become the bad news business. Negative coverage about our current situation allows office seekers and office holders to justify sweeping new government programs. A “crisis of the month” mentality helps persuade the public not only of the need for bureaucratic solutions, but serves to convince the bureaucrats and politicos themselves that they are personally needed. In order to mobilize supporters and persuade fence sitters, candidates for office love to insist that the nation faces unprecedented difficulties and unparalleled incompetence from the other side. In Presidential elections in particular, challengers regularly proclaim that “this is the most important campaign in American history” and that we face “the worst economy” (or worst foreign threat, or worst moral collapse, or worst immigrant invasion —you fill in the blanks) in “fifty (or a hundred, or two hundred) years.”

While candidates often succeed with such hysterical appeals, in most cases the public will hear countervailing voices to the gloom-and-doom pronouncements. In every presidential election since 1952, either the president himself or his vice president (and chosen successor) has been a major party nominee for the White House. Of course, the opposition party makes a run for the top job by lambasting “the mess in Washington,” but the incumbent party usually answers back that despite demagogic denunciations, the situation isn’t actually all that bad. Successful presidents successfully defend the status quo and thereby win the election, as did Dwight Eisenhower in ’56, LBJ in ’64, Richard Nixon in ’72, Ronald Reagan in ’84, Bill Clinton in ’96 and George W. Bush in 2004. Other Presidents try to stick up for their records and the direction that they’ve led the country, but find themselves rejected by voters – as were Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in ’92. Finally, there’s the situation of Vice Presidents who seek to celebrate and extend the administration’s leadership, and hope to continue that leadership in successor presidencies. Some of these would-be heirs succeed in winning the White House for themselves (like the first President Bush in 1992) while many more fail (such as Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Al Gore in 2000).

In other words in the last 13 Presidential elections in a row, there’s been an “administration candidate” to stand up proudly and publicly against the opposition party’s claims that the national situation is dire and desperate. Even when these defenders of things-as-they-are fail at the ballot box, they still serve to balance the public discourse and to place complaints and self-pity in a more reasonable context.

This time, however, President Bush can’t run for re-election (he’s prohibited by the Constitution, of course) and the aging, ailing Vice President Cheney chose (wisely) not to become a candidate. As a result, even the top Republican contenders promote change and say little or nothing to defend the record of an incumbent GOP administration. It’s not just that George W. Bush is controversial: he actually draws a much higher approval rating than the Democratic leaders of Congress. Even if the incumbent were conspicuously popular, however, those who ran to replace him would want to differentiate their candidacies from the lame-duck administration in which they had no prominent role. It’s easier and more energizing for a candidate to sketch his bold, sunlit new visions for the nation, rather than rationalizing all the shadowy policy twists and turns of the immediate past and justifying all the up and down occurrences under his predecessor.

Without a sitting chief executive or a loyal Veep as a candidate, no one’s forced to stand up for the current situation, or explain recent decisions, or remind voters that we’re actually doing relatively well, all things considered. Instead, all presidential contenders, Republican as well as Democrat, bid for support by demanding “change” and denouncing things as they are. In prior campaigns, there’s been an administration candidate to argue for staying the course, but not this time.

Obama and Clinton try to defame McCain by claiming he’d provide a “third term for Bush,” but the Republican standard bearer wisely refuses to accept that designation. He’s differed with enough Bush policies (especially regarding run-away government spending and the early mismanagement of the war) to run credibly as a candidate of conservative change. Those who support the Bush administration (more than one third the electorate, remember) will back McCain anyway, so avoiding the enthusiastic embrace of the administration costs him nothing while giving him a better chance to appeal to independents and wavering Democrats. It’s not that the status quo is indefensible, in other words, but just that there’s no presidential contender who’d gain by defending it.

In this situation, feverish alarmists inevitably drown out the voices of reassurance, and the public feels persuaded of a prevailing state of crisis and desperation. It becomes fashionable, in other words, and all but inevitable, for citizens to view our national condition in grim and frightening terms, at the same time that they speak to friends and family (and even to pollsters) of their manifold reasons for private satisfaction gratitude and optimism.

A new administration – even a new McCain administration – is likely to confirm that optimism when the press provides the breathless, admiring “honeymoon” coverage they usually provide any new president (yes, even Republicans). Since the national mood reflects media coverage and political maneuvering more than it responds to actual conditions for real American families, it’s safe to assume that attitudes toward the state of the nation will inevitably improve by the beginning of 2009.