In the good old days, we yearned less for the good old days.

That’s one way to read some of the results from a new Public Religion Research Institute survey. It finds that over the last several years, Americans have become substantially less optimistic about the country’s future and more nostalgic for the country’s glorious past.

One survey question asked whether America’s best days were “ahead of us” or “behind us.” In 2012, 54 percent said “ahead” and 34 percent said “behind.” When the question was asked this fall, however, the answers were split evenly at 49 percent.

Responses varied substantially by party affiliation. In 2015, a majority of Democrats said our country’s best days are yet to come, while a majority of Republicans said our best days have already passed us by.

In 2012, Democrats were also relatively more optimistic about the future than Republicans were, but members of both parties were still more likely to say the best days were ahead than behind.

As you may have noticed, those who identify with the tea party are most likely to say America’s best days were in the past, which perhaps explains why Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” resonates so strongly with the populist right. Tea partyers also have had the biggest increase in nostalgia (or, alternatively, pessimism) over the last three years, with the share saying our best days are long gone rising 18 points. Here’s a chart showing just the best-days-are-behind-us responses for each group, in 2012 vs. 2015:

Even if tea partyers had the biggest surge in pessimism, pessimism went up within every political group.


So what changed between 2012 and 2015? The economy improved, which in a sense seems like it should encourage optimism. But perhaps the very tepid pace of the recovery — and in particular, wage growth — also led people to reevaluate where they think the country is headed, and just how much more expansion is possible. Astonishingly, about three-quarters of Americans believe the economy is still in a recession, according to the survey. (The downturn technically ended in June 2009.)

Additionally, it’s not paychecks alone that Americans may be thinking of when answering this question about America’s best days.

Nostalgia for America’s past glory also coincides with widespread disapproval of changes in American culture. A majority of independents (56 percent), Republicans (67 percent), and members of the tea party (72 percent) say American culture and way of life have “mostly changed for the worse” since the 1950s. Only 40 percent of Democrats agree.