Is America a bummer?

Our ‘crisis of confidence’; may be a misinterpretation

Those of us old enough to remember the presidency of Jimmy Carter in the late ’70s may also recall what was described as his “malaise” speech, an address to the nation that evoked discontent in a country dealing with gas lines; high unemployment; and inflation, among other intractable issues.

Carter never used the word malaise, but he described a “crisis of confidence” in America and in the American way of life, “a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.”

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That may sound familiar in the 2020s, as our increasingly polarized nation grapples with inflation, racial divisions, immigration; bitter and increasingly partisan politics; even our core values as Americans, all of it filtered through a reckless social media.

Is America depressed?

“It feels like the country is coming apart and we are not united in some shared purpose,” Matt Lewis of the Daily Beast wrote in May. “Just as an individual’s deep-seated psychological and spiritual needs (such as purpose and belonging) are fundamental … the same is true at the national level.”

A 2022 NBC News poll found “stark partisan differences on major cultural issues — racism, LGBTQ individuals, the term woke and even the fundamental goals of American society,” it

“Half of Americans — 50% — believe society should be promoting greater respect for traditional social and moral values,” NBC reported, “while 42% say society should be encouraging greater tolerance of people with different lifestyles and backgrounds.”

The divides were obvious even before COVID and its attendant battles over vaccines and lockdowns, according to USA Today contributor Andrew Hanauer.

“Polarization in any society is normal,” he wrote. “People disagree. They sometimes disagree about deeply important issues. They fight for their beliefs in the political and social arena. That’s healthy. That’s normal.”

What is happening today, Hanauer maintains, is that our divides are sharper and more poisonous. Yet he sees hope.

“If things feel hopeless, take heart,” he noted. “Because the vast majority of Americans don’t want to see this kind of division. The vast majority of Americans want to build a shared future together. And as research continues to prove, we’re not as divided as we think.”

So are our perceptions about polarization off base? Are we too pessimistic? Yes, says a study by the website More in Common, based on a recent poll of 2,100 Americans.

“More than three quarters of Americans believe our differences are not so great that we cannot come together,” the website reports. “Yet someone scrolling through a social media news feed, or switching on cable TV or talk radio could be convinced that we’re a country heading towards civil war.

The study showed that among the causes of polarization are the false beliefs people have of their political opponents and each other.

” … While Americans do indeed hold different values and disagree on key issues,” More in
Common explained, “we underestimate how much more we have in common.”

Jon Meacham might have said it best in his 2018 book, The Soul of America, in which he evokes another president and offers hope for the country.

“The good news is that we have come through such darkness before,” he wrote, “as, time and again, Lincoln’s better angels have found a way to prevail.”

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