Pessimism threatens to become a new normal in America. Three times as many Americans think the country is on the “wrong track” (69 percent) than on the “right track” (23 percent) according to the latest Rasmussen tracking poll. This isn’t just a reaction to a summer of crises. This trend has been building for years. Gone is the sense that it’s “morning in America” and that a brighter future always lies ahead.
A lack of faith in our national leadership contributes to this pessimism: President Obama’s job approval numbers are abysmal; Congress’s are worse. Trust in the media is also low, and for good reason: The media frenetically moves from crisis to crisis—from Russian aggression, to the U.S. border fiasco, to unrest in Ferguson, to the unraveling in the Middle East. Situations aren’t resolved so much as pushed aside for something new.
How can we get out of this cycle and restore the optimism that used to be central to the American story?
A first step may be to evaluate what we’ve lost so that we can consider how to get back to better times. Americans may appear more divided than ever, but we share common concerns and a vision of what would make for a better society for women and men alike. We all want to live in safe communities that allow us to build relationships with others and create a sense of belonging. We want good jobs of all sorts: starter jobs for high schoolers, part-time positions for parents who want to be home when kids return from school, and opportunities that aren’t just jobs but are part of true, fulfilling careers.
Americans want a safety net to help people in need and ensure that everyone, regardless of income or circumstance, has access to high quality education and health care services. But we also want the confidence that support programs are efficiently run and helping those who really need it, and aren’t being exploited to aid self-destructive lifestyles. We want to be proud of our elected officials and know that they are truly focused on creating a better country with more opportunity for everyone.
It sounds good, doesn’t it?
Sadly, our nation seems to be moving further from this vision, rather than towards it. We may hear that the economy is improving, but it sure doesn’t feel that way when we hear of friends and family giving up on job searches. Even those with solid employment feel uneasy faced with rapidly rising prices in grocery stores, and the pressure to save for college and retirement. Rather than seeing the economy as a place where hard work is rewarded, the system increasingly feels rigged. Politics seems to infuse every aspect of business, with government handing out staggering sums to the politically connected, and big business leaders unabashedly showering money on top pols. It’s hard to know when success is honestly won and when it’s a result of savvy political manipulation.
Americans are the most charitable people on the planet, but there is growing concern that too many who seek help from the government aren’t acting in good faith. Exploding disability roles and food stamp usage suggest that we no longer expect the average person to be able to—or worse, to even want to—support themselves. Americans worry that their children may grow up to thinking of hard work as something for suckers. I know I worry about that.
Government feeds this cynicism, by failing to handle its most important responsibilities, while seeking to micromanage all other aspects of life. Washington seems utterly powerless in matters of foreign affairs or in protecting our nation’s borders, but then bossily wants to dictate what must be in our school’s vending machines, how calorie information is displayed at the neighborhood bakery, what kind of light bulbs we use and what’s covered in every health insurance plan.
Here’s the good news: It doesn’t have to be this way. There are ways that we can improve our country and culture. Part of the solution has to be better public policies. A newly released book, Lean Together: An Agenda for Smarter Government, Stronger Communities, and More Economic Opportunity for Women, provides a road map of reforms that would move us in a better direction. It calls for removing unnecessary government intrusions, making it easier for employers and entrepreneurs to start and expand businesses, and refocusing government assistance programs on those truly in need. Whenever possible, whether in education or in health care, we should restore decision-making authority to people and consumers, rather than empowering government officials to make sweeping decisions for everyone. We want to encourage dynamism and innovation, and that requires getting government out of the business of picking winners and losers.
Yet that’s just part of the solution. We also need to encourage Americans to take a fresh look at how they can contribute to creating the society we all want to live in. Government assistance isn’t the same as support from a loving neighbor or friend; scores of charitable organizations exist in every city and town which are trying to help and need our involvement. Each of us should feel challenges to step up by contributing more of our time or our money. Instead of simply lamenting our destructive culture, we can start to take control by turning off the videos, music, and programming that are making our problems worse.
Resurrecting America’s quintessential optimism will take work, but we can all play a part in creating the society we want by starting in our own homes and communities.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum and editor and a contributing author to Lean Together: An Agenda for Smarter Government, Stronger Communities, and More Economic Opportunity for Women.