The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which has conducted an annual survey of the national mood since 1972, found this summer that the proportion of people describing themselves as “very happy” had plummeted to 14 percent — compared with the survey’s previous record low of 29 percent, recorded after the 2008 financial crisis. But NORC researchers were startled to find that, despite this year’s economic shutdown, 36 percent declared themselves “satisfied” with their financial situation, the highest in the study’s history, and the fewest ever expressed dissatisfaction. (This was when generous unemployment support was in effect.)
For the first time, “there’s a disconnect between financial satisfaction and overall happiness,” says David Sterrett, senior researcher for the NORC study. “With everything going on socially and politically, those have become more of a driver.”
Other research, by Gallup, gives an idea of the cause. There’s typically a partisan effect after elections. After 2008, for example, Democrats and Democratic constituencies (minorities, women, low-income Americans) felt better about their lives, while Republicans and their constituencies felt worse. But something very different happened after 2016: Well-being measures dropped substantially for Democratic constituencies, as expected, but independents’ happiness also dropped, and there was no corresponding jump in the sense of well-being among Republicans or among Whites. Actually, they declined, though within the margin of error.
In sum, well-being among all American adults declined “substantially” with Trump’s election — even though the economy was expanding. Meanwhile, the population in 21 states (many in Trump country) had a significant decline in well-being in 2017 — a huge shift in one year — and not one state experienced an increase. More Americans complained of worry, lost pleasure in activities and less positive energy from friends, family and leaders. Those had all been stable from 2014 to 2016. After Trump’s election, they all worsened — and stayed worse.
Dan Witters, research director of Gallup’s well-being studies, tells me the nonpartisan polling group concluded it could objectively state that there’s “a rather obvious Trump effect.”
Republicans’ sense of well-being didn’t improve, Witters says, “because of the way the social fabric has been strained in the Trump era.” Elevated anxiety “disproportionately affected Democrats, but it threw enough sand in the gears of Republicans and supporters of Trump that it prevented their well-being from getting much of a lift.”
There’s abundant support for this. In 2019, pre-pandemic, University of Nebraska researchers found that 4 in 10 said politics had made them stressed, 3 in 10 said it caused them to lose their temper and 2 in 10 said it caused problems sleeping and damaged friendships.
The American Psychological Association in 2017 found two-thirds of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, were stressed about the future of the nation. That jumped to 83 percent this year, with 66 percent saying government’s handling of the pandemic causes significant stress.
“Things weren’t great before the pandemic,” says Rachel Garfield, a vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. And now the national mood has fallen off a cliff. An August Kaiser poll found that 53 percent of adults say the pandemic has hurt their mental health. Many cite problems with sleeping, eating, alcohol and drugs. Those reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders nearly quadrupled during the pandemic, to 40 percent.
All this means, sadly, that the American psyche won’t bounce back fully when the economy recovers, nor when the virus is beaten. The depression wouldn’t necessarily lift if Trump were defeated, particularly if he continued to stoke rage among supporters.
But if Trump returns to office, I fear, the national despair will deepen as we resume lurching from crisis to crisis with the same destabilizing chaos. This week alone we’ve seen Trump attacking his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Attorney General Bill Barr attacking his own Justice Department, and the administration hurling charges of “sedition” at government scientists and demonstrators, and a wildly hypocritical McConnell, after blocking Obama’s Supreme Court nominee because it was eight months before an election, announcing plans just six weeks before an election to rush through a Ginsburg replacement.
After delivering a paranoid rant about armed insurrection, senior Trump administration official Michael Caputo this week blamed his high “stress level” and took a leave of absence. He said “every American” fighting the pandemic “has been under enormous pressure. I am just one of them.”
He’s right about that. After four years, we are barely holding it together. Surely four more years would cause the losing of the American mind.