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Pessimism is the New Black

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I don’t often say this, but this Op-ed in the New York Times by Frank Bruni is really good, and you should read the whole thing. Bruni lays out a fairly significant amount of evidence that the characteristic optimism of Americans is not just suffering a temporary setback, but rather may have sustained a mortal wound:

Much of this was chillingly captured by a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from early August that got lost somewhat amid the recent deluge of awful news but deserved closer attention.

It included the jolting finding that 76 percent of Americans ages 18 and older weren’t confident that their children’s generation would fare better than their own. That’s a blunt repudiation of the very idea of America, of what the “land of opportunity” is supposed to be about. For most voters, the national narrative is no longer plausible.

The poll also showed that 71 percent thought that the country was on the wrong track. While that represents a spike, it also affirms a negative mind-set that’s been fixed for a scarily long time. As the Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik has repeatedly noted, more Americans have been saying “wrong track” than “right track” for at least a decade now, and something’s got to give.

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The intensity of Americans’ disgust with Congress came through in anotherrecent poll, by ABC News and The Washington Post. Typically, Americans lambaste the institution as a whole but make an exception for the politician representing their district. But in this poll, for the first time in the 25 years that ABC and The Post had been asking the question, a majority of respondents — 51 percent — said that they disapproved even of the job that their own House member was doing.

So we can expect to see a huge turnover in Congress after the midterms, right?

That’s a rhetorical question, and a joke. Congress wasn’t in any great favor in 2012, and 90 percent of the House members and 91 percent of the senators who sought re-election won it. The tyranny of money, patronage, name recognition and gerrymandering in American politics guaranteed as much. Small wonder that 79 percent of Americans indicated dissatisfaction with the system in the Journal/NBC poll.

GOP strategists think about these things often when contemplating the possible field for 2016. I understand that 2014 looms ahead and that important work has to be done, but it’s hard not to find some level of discouragement at the fact that anything truly good that can be done by a Republican Congress will just get immediately vetoed by an increasingly indifferent and detached President Obama. And so almost everyone is looking forward to some degree over the horizon to 2016 where the next major opportunity to shift the direction of the country will come rolling along.

People like to say, well, we need to find a candidate who is pushing a message of optimism and not just negativity, like Ronald Reagan did. Things can be turned around in a very short period of time, they say. The reality is that it’s not that simple – I watched Rick Perry give a rousing speech in Ft. Worth a couple weeks ago that was liberally sprinkled with references to hope and optimism and a constant refrain that America’s best days are ahead of us, not behind us. But as I sat listening, I could not help but think to myself, “You know, I don’t really believe this.” No disrespect to Governor Perry, who I like a lot, but it’s difficult to reach that conclusion these days; and it has almost nothing to do with the way the government has irreversibly changed for the worse, I have fears that Americans have irreversibly changed.

I don’t really know what the answer is. Reagan’s optimism in 1980 was a form of defiance against a President who had surrendered to tacky sweaters and the vision of permanent American malaise. I am not sure it can be repackaged, at least by any of the current crowd of contenders. And if they can’t, they shouldn’t try. I thought 2012 presented a unique opportunity for Chris Christie – the nation seemed to simmer with anger over the completely unexpected downturn in our personal economic prosperity and global status, and Christie’s schtick was uniquely fitted to the zeitgeist of that time; I am not sure that it will fly equally well now that America seems to have settled into a prolonged ennui. Especially given that the temptation to succumb to “Well, what the hell, let’s give a woman a chance. Why not?” may be nearly overwhelming.

The country has adopted many bad policies over the years that need to be undone. But more dangerous, the country has fallen into a seemingly irreparable national funk about our future, our economy, and our place in the world. The most important element of reversing this slide isn’t any given policy proposal, but rather the ability to convey the conviction that America as a country, an idea, and a national identity is still worth fighting for. And anyone who is unable to do that is doomed to fail as a President, even if they are somehow able to get elected.

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