The Death Of Optimism

Posted on August 8, 2010


In  an opinion piece by syndicated columnist Peggy Noonan in today’s Wall Street Journal, Ms. Noonan laments that public optimism about the “American Dream” has declined in America to an alarming degree.  The bonds that cement us together as a free and united people are being eroded by the rising radicalism of the politically correct, unsustainable deficit spending, increasing demands by government for more and more taxes and a Balkanization of the nation due to massive unchecked illegal immigration. Ms. Noonan states that:

[The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did. This is a huge break with the past, with assumptions and traditions that shaped us.

The country I was born into was a country that had existed steadily, for almost two centuries, as a nation in which everyone thought—wherever they were from, whatever their circumstances—that their children would have better lives than they did. That was what kept people pulling their boots on in the morning.]

Ms. Noonan is absolutely correct in this observation. My own experience (having been born in 1943) gives me the same sense that all is not right or deserving of the same sense of optimism that I knew as a child and for most of my adult life.  She further goes on to state that:

[Parents now fear something has stopped. They think they lived through the great abundance, a time of historic growth in wealth and material enjoyment. They got it, and they enjoyed it, and their kids did, too: a lot of toys in that age, a lot of Xboxes and iPhones. (Who is the most self-punishing person in America right now? The person who didn’t do well during the abundance.) But they look around, follow the political stories and debates, and deep down they think their children will live in a more limited country, that jobs won’t be made at a great enough pace, that taxes—too many people in the cart, not enough pulling it—will dishearten them, that the effects of 30 years of a low, sad culture will leave the whole country messed up. And then there is the world: nuts with nukes, etc]

These are not attitudes that are conducive to a healthy democracy and certainly should not be taken lightly or ignored. Yet Ms. Noonan states that the hubris of todays political class is doing exactly this:

[But do our political leaders have any sense of what people are feeling deep down? They don’t act as if they do. I think their detachment from how normal people think is more dangerous and disturbing than it has been in the past. I started noticing in the 1980s the growing gulf between the country’s thought leaders, as they’re called—the political and media class, the universities—and those living what for lack of a better word we’ll call normal lives on the ground in America. The two groups were agitated by different things, concerned about different things, had different focuses, different world views.

But I’ve never seen the gap wider than it is now. I think it is a chasm. In Washington they don’t seem to be looking around and thinking, Hmmm, this nation is in trouble, it needs help. They’re thinking something else. I’m not sure they understand the American Dream itself needs a boost, needs encouragement and protection. They don’t seem to know or have a sense of the mood of the country.

And so they make their moves, manipulate this issue and that, and keep things at a high boil. And this at a time when people are already in about as much hot water as they can take.]

The refusal of Washington to do anything about immigration other than thwart the will of the public and interfere with the State of Arizona because they are doing something about it is a perfect illustration of what Ms. Noonan has observed above.  Even if November’s election were to be a watershed of change it is doubtful that the public’s wishes will be carried out in regard to the immigration issue. This is a dangerous situation and the demise of  democracies have been prompted by lesser issues than this. Ms. Noonan concludes by stating:

[When the adults of a great nation feel long-term pessimism, it only makes matters worse when those in authority take actions that reveal their detachment from the concerns—even from the essential nature—of their fellow citizens. And it makes those citizens feel powerless.

Inner pessimism and powerlessness: That is a dangerous combination]

I could not agree more with Ms. Noonan in her conclusion.  We can only hope and pray that those who we elect to public office will re-connect to the attitudes and hopes of the constituents who have put them there before America as we know it implodes.