The Doubting American

Article excerpt

AMERICANS have been bombarded in recent years with accounts of their nation's decline. The most persistent of these involves the supposed withering of United States economic prowess, especially before the challenge from Behemoth Japan.

Despite massive expenditures on them, our schools, we are told, are failing to educate students properly. Instead of accepting individual responsibility, we are developing the mentality of "a nation of victims." Families are falling apart. The US is described as polarized racially and as increasingly fractured between haves and have-nots.

Americans have long been anxious about the status of things that are important to them. When the Roper Organization asked in the fall of 1948 whether "you expect the next few years are going to bring better times, worse times, or do you think we'll go along about as we are now?," nearly twice as many respondents said "worse" as said "better." In July 1963, before President Kennedy's assassination and when Camelot supposedly still reigned, just 34 percent of those polled by Gallup pronounced themselves "satisfied...with the honesty and standards of behavior of people in the country today," while 59 percent said they were dissatisfied.

This seems natural enough. There's probably always been an element of nostalgia in the American soul. What's more, some things - including important things - are always going wrong "today," and these are the things, not yesterday's problems, that we have to worry about.

Many leaders in the US's founding generation believed in the idea of "American exceptionalism" - that the country had a unique place and promise, conferred by God and/or a special historical record. "What if we fail to achieve the promise?" many of the founders, including Washington and Adams, asked. John Quincy Adams, in his famous Jubilee Address of April 30, 1839, on the 50th anniversary of Washington's inauguration, expressed deep pessimism about the country's future. As the younger Adams saw it, the nation's response to slavery and sectionalism struck at the core of the promise. Similarly, Lincoln saw the half century leading up to the Civil War as a time when the nation betrayed its creed. In different forms, this anxiety can be seen recurring to our own day. A burst of negative views

These caveats noted, available data do seem to suggest an extraordinary burst of negative sentiments in the contemporary public. Assessments of the national economy are a case in point. Every week since late 1985, ABC News and Money magazine asked national samples a series of economic questions, including: "Would you describe the state of the nation's economy these days as excellent, good, not so good, or poor?" Subtracting the two negative assessments (not so good and poor) from the two positive ones, we get a score that in theory can run from +100 - everyone finding the economy in good shape - to -100.

The weekly scores follow actual economic performance only very roughly. Scores were, for example, far lower during the 1991 recession than during the much stronger economy of 1988. But economic assessments averaged considerably lower during 1992, when the economy was actually strengthening, than during 1991, when it reached its recession low. …

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