Americans have always thought of themselves as an optimistic people, but you’d have a hard time finding evidence for that lately. You hear it in our political debate, and you probably hear it in discussions with family and friends as well. Poll after poll reports a deep, abiding pessimism, with a large majority of Americans saying the country is headed in the wrong direction.
The most recent such poll comes from Reuters/Ipsos, released Thursday. It reports that just 24 percent of Americans believe that the country is on the right track, with 59 percent believing we’re headed in the opposite direction. But what struck me most about the Reuters report is the partisan divide hidden in those numbers.
Forty percent of Democrats believe that the country is headed in the right direction, while only 10 percent of Republicans share that confidence. Overall, 83 percent of Republicans fear the country is headed down the tubes, so to speak, with only 43 percent of Democrats feeling that way. If you want to know why Donald Trump’s message of “Make America Great Again” has had such resonance within the GOP base, and why the general tone of that party is that “we’re going to hell in a handbasket,” there’s your explanation. (According to Ipsos, Trump (29%) and Ben Carson (27%) remain at the top of the Republican race, followed by Jeb Bush (9%), Marco Rubio (6%) and Ted Cruz (5%).)
Some might try to attribute that sense of national gloom among Republicans to the presence of President Obama, and there’s some truth to that. Polling history tells us that Republicans and Democrats both tend to be more optimistic about the direction we’re headed when someone from their own party sits in the White House. However, the depth of the GOP’s current disenchantment runs much deeper than historic norms would indicate.
You might also argue that these dismal numbers represent the lingering impact of the 2008 economic collapse, the biggest economic crisis the country has faced in 80 years. But as bad as they are today, the right track/wrong track numbers were even lower in 2007 and 2008 — before President Obama took office, before the economic collapse. This is not the consequence of one man, or one event. This is a long-term phenomenon. Gallup has been asking its version of this question since 1979, and it notes that prior to 2006, the optimism rate rarely fell below 30 percent. It’s been below that number for a decade now.
The last time a majority of Americans thought we were on the right track was back in 2003 or 2004, in the temporary afterglow of the Iraq invasion and before things turned sour. The sense of national unity that surged in the wake of the 9/11 attacks also produced a moment of optimism, but to find a sustained period of national confidence you would have to reach back to the turn of the century.
And it’s odd, in a way. We certainly have our economic challenges, but the truth is that at 5.1 percent, the jobless rate is lower today than it was at any point under President Reagan, for example. The stock market is doing fine, and the so-called misery index of the unemployment rate combined with inflation is at its lowest rate in my lifetime. Terrorism poses a threat, but the scale of that threat does not approach what we faced against the Soviet Union, for example.
Given all that, if we’re looking to government as the cause of our lack of confidence, and thus to government as the solution to that problem, then I suspect we’re looking in the wrong places. For example, I’m sure the 83 percent of Republicans who now believe that things are on the wrong track would get a temporary boost of optimism if we elect a President Rubio or (heaven forbid) Trump next year, but I doubt that’s going to address the real sources of their disenchantment, which are probably far more cultural and social than political.