Americans are very anxious about the state of the nation and gloomy about prospects for the future. What is the cause of this dark public mood?
The public is in a bad funk. This is, of course, not the first time the public mood has turned negative in recent years. Whether one calls it “malaise,” “unwinding,” “off balance,” “wrong track,” or some other term connoting a public mood of pessimism, such states of mind are bound to occur whenever our economies and politics are volatile, as they inevitably are from time to time. These moods do no lasting harm as long as they eventually dissipate and the nation returns to its traditional optimistic outlook.
I am worried about this particular funk because I see no signs of it lifting, and some troubling signs that it might even grow worse. Despite a slowly improving economy, a recent Wall Street Journal poll shows that Americans are very anxious about the state of the nation and gloomy about prospects for the future—state of mind that has deepened over the past few years.
The poll shows that more than seven out of ten Americans:
- Lack confidence that their children will have a better life than they have had (76%).
- Express deep concern with how our political system is failing us (79%).
- Blame our problems on the inability of our elected officials to take effective action (71%).
- Believe the country is on the wrong track (71%).
These levels of public distress are extraordinarily high. When pessimism exceeds a two-thirds majority it should be seen as a tipping point. Beyond this point, the country’s political mood becomes volatile and unstable.
Growing public frustration is inevitable, especially when the public is convinced that their social mobility is blocked. (The Journal poll reports that a majority believes that growing income inequality between the wealthy and everyone else “is undermining the idea that every American has the opportunity to move up to a better standard of living.”)
This particular dark mood reflects a suspicion that something deeper than a slow-growth economy is wrong with America.
What worries me is the root cause of the public funk. People see dysfunction virtually everywhere but don’t understand what’s causing it, and that combination is leading to a deepening public pessimism.
Policymakers tend to assume that the economy will eventually return to strong growth and when it does, the public mood will pick up. My sense, however, is that this particular dark mood reflects a suspicion that something deeper than a slow-growth economy is wrong with America.
Americans clearly state they believe our political system is broken. Suspicion also exists that our health care system is out of control, our criminal justice system is twisted and distorted, our K-12 education system isn’t working as it should, our core business values are wrong-headed and even our higher education system has started to fail us.
These suspicions are not unfounded. It has to be evident to thoughtful Americans that some fundamental flaw is distorting all aspects of American life.
Worst of all, we don’t know what that flaw is and don’t have a clue about how to fix it.
Rebooting Democracy is a blog authored by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich. While the views that Dan shares in his blog should not be interpreted as representing official Public Agenda positions, the purpose behind the blog and the spirit in which it is presented resonate powerfully with our values and the work that we do. To receive Rebooting Democracy in your inbox, subscribe here.