Much of America is in a funk. Americans (71 percent of them anyway) think things are “going pretty badly or very badly in the country today” (CNN, Dec 2010). Sixty-three percent think America is on the “wrong track” (NBC/Wall Street Journal, Dec 2010). These figures are not surprising, perhaps, given the state of the economy, politics, and world affairs.
The latest contribution to this Chicken Little portrait is the result of a Harris poll that asked what Americans believe will be “a major contributor to making the country great” in “the next ten years.” Since the same question was asked in 1975, the comparison is enlightening.
Of 24 factors, only one was cited as likely to be a major contributor to making American great in the next decade by more than two-thirds of those polled: “Living under a system of guaranteed individual freedom” (68 percent). In contrast, 15 factors were cited in 1975 (which was, lest we forget, just a year after Watergate and the same year in which helicopters snatched the last Americans out of Vietnam as it was overrun from the North).
For every factor, this decline in optimism was evident. For example, “people of different ideas representing the rights of others” saw a 29 point drop (from 77 to 48 percent); “rich natural resources” dropped 27 points (79 to 52); “industrial know-how and scientific progress” fell 26 points (86 to 60); and “allowing people to own private property” fell 22 points (82 to 60).
The pessimism seemed particularly marked generationally, with Echo-Boomers (18-33) reporting lower percentages in every factor compared to older age cohorts, with the largest gaps being between them and Matures (65+). For example, “hard working people” as a source of America’s greatness in the next decade was cited by 81 percent of Matures but only 48 percent of Echo-Boomers.
The post-Watergate funk was followed by Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning Again in America” campaign in 1984, so the current pessimism may well be followed by a similar appeal to Americans to feel better about themselves.
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