We know this because Karlyn Bowman, the public opinion guru at the American Enterprise Institute, has done us the favor of collecting a long list of statistics that describes the national mood. Here are some of the most interesting, gathered with the help of Samantha Goldstein, her research assistant:
Right Track, Wrong Track: The Roper Organization first asked the question in 1973, during the Vietnam War and Watergate era, when 74 percent of respondents said the nation was on the wrong track. A new CBS News poll is almost as high, at 67percent.
Happiness: NORC at the University of Chicago regularly asks people about their personal happiness. In 2020, the share saying they’re “very happy” fell to 14 percent, the lowest on record. The share expressing unhappiness (“not too happy”) jumped to 23 percent, the highest on record since 1972. The remainder are in a group of just over 60 percent who are “pretty happy.”
Race Relations: Though they’re in flux, they may be stronger than you think, according to surveys. A poll just taken says 35 percent of Americans think relations are “generally good.” That’s way down from the 66 percent registered during the Obama presidency, but near the 41 percent recorded in 1990.
Patriotism: Here, the apparently good news is actually bad. For two decades, Gallup has asked about people’s pride in being an American. In a June survey, 63 percent said they were “very” or “extremely” proud to be an American. Sounds solid. It isn’t. In the early 2000s, feelings of strong pride were as high as 90 percent. They’ve fallen for six years, especially among Republicans.
The Economy: Collapsing consumer confidence has undermined the recovery. In April, the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment experienced the largest drop in its history.
The Future: A May/June poll reported that only 28 percent of respondents felt that the next generation would do better than the present generation, while 47 percent expected it to do worse. About 20 percent thought it would be the same.
As with many polls, there are inconsistencies and variations. There still seems to be fairly wide support for democracy, as reflected in a 2019 survey from the Voter Study group. Three-quarters (77 percent) found democracy preferable to other forms of government. Similarly, an April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 61 percent of registered voters were mainly optimistic about the future.
Americans also continue to support an active role in world affairs. That position registered a 69 percent approval rating in 2019, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Americans are internationalists,” writes Bowman, “but often reluctant ones.”
Are there lessons to be drawn from this tsunami of gloom? The answer is yes.
The connecting threads of these pessimistic surveys are the novel coronavirus and its devastating impact on the economy. Nearly everyone is affected in one way or another. There’s a clash between America’s individualistic culture (“You can’t make me wear a mask.”) and the need for a collective response (“If we don’t respond collectively to the pandemic — wearing the masks, practicing social distancing — then the virus will explode and make many more of us worse off.”).
Under the best of conditions, this is not an easy message to convey to the public. We need to surrender some of our individual choice to minimize the damage to us as individuals and as a society. Or, to say the same thing backward, if we insist on maximizing individual choice by refusing to follow the advice of doctors and scientists, then we lose control over our destiny. The resulting sense of helplessness and loss of control are deeply discouraging.
The role for leadership in a situation like this is to persuade most of the public about the nature of the paradox: that we protect individuals better when we act together, rather than asserting an artificial freedom that ultimately harms more of us as individuals. This is, in short, a central reason for having reliable presidential leadership.
It has not been forthcoming, as by now almost everyone knows. President Trump not only rejects this model but also worsens our situation by embracing the self-destructive alternative. If people weren’t pessimistic, you’d have to question their sanity.
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