The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America’s pessimism surplus

One of the few beliefs that unites Americans is pessimism about the future of the country

Pastor Andre Kamoche hands out fruit during a food giveaway operated by his church, Rehoboth House of Prayer, on Jefferson Street in Buffalo on May 18. (Libby March for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Two weeks ago, the National Review issued a statement signed by many leading commentators on the right titled “America’s Crisis of Self-Doubt.” It warned, “The national mood resembles those of the 1930s and 1970s, when radical critiques of America got considerable traction and our national self-confidence often seemed to hang by a thread.” Criticizing those on the left and the right who have grown “disenchanted with the American project,” the signatories argued that “we still have an enormous capacity for renewal.”

As it turns out, it is not only conservatives despairing about the omnipresent sense of despair in the United States. In an interview last week with my Washington Post colleagues Leigh Ann Caldwell and Theodoric Meyer in the wake of the Buffalo shootings, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) sounded a similar theme: “Look at where we are (in) the country. It seems to be it’s coming from all sides. You wonder whether or not people just decided that the pursuit of a more perfect union has come to an end.”

Of course, Clyburn gave that interview last week, or at least two mass shootings ago.

On Tuesday, the country was rocked by a mass shooting event in an Uvalde, Tex., elementary school that left 19 children and 2 adults dead. It was the 27th school shooting this year. This is, without question, an unfortunate arena of American exceptionalism.

Public opinion on gun regulation is divided in many ways, but there is a strong consensus on some common-sense measures. According to the Pew Research Center, strong majorities in both parties favor preventing those with mental illnesses from being able to purchase guns. Similarly strong majorities support subjecting private gun sales and gun show sales to background checks. They also oppose allowing people to carry concealed firearms without a permit.

None of these measures would put a halt to mass shootings — but they might reduce their number. They would also signal that elected officials will respond to atrocities with measures to prevent further atrocities. That is how government is supposed to function.

Anyone familiar with the current state of American politics, however, is well aware that these measures will not be passed. Indeed, last year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed a permit-less carry bill into law. After the Uvalde shooting, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) said that “we can’t stop bad people from doing bad things,” which seems like a defeatist argument to defund the police more than a logic for coping with mass shootings.

A surefire way to make the citizens of any country more pessimistic about the future is to see those in power acknowledge a public policy problem and do nothing about it (or, in the case of Texas, actually exacerbate the problem):

An hour or two after the news of Uvalde broke, Matthew Yglesias tweeted, “For all its very real problems, one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the contemporary United States of America is one of the best places to live in all of human history and there’s a reason tons of people of all kinds from all around the world clamor to move here.”

Yglesias was pummeled on social media for his provocatively timed missive. That said, Yglesias’s tweet contains a kernel of truth, as does that National Review statement. I still agree with the proposition that “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

What is also true, however, is the well-established data point that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Political polarization and ideological sorting exacerbate the problem.

Folks like Yglesias or the National Review’s signatories want to see an end to American pessimism. A good way for that to happen is for Americans to see their elected officials tackle an epidemic of shootings that everyone agrees is an abomination.

U.S. political elites are saying something must be done. They have zero agreement on the something. The failure to agree, the failure to recognize that compromise is not a dirty word, the failure to take any appreciable action to address an ongoing horror, is a surefire way to entrench American pessimism for decades to come.

Loading...