California Forum

A dark mood in America

Cheryle James, 57, a Portland, Ore.-area program manager for a telecommunications equipment and software company:
“I don’t see as many people being able to realize the American Dream as there should be. I personally know people who live paycheck to paycheck, and I see a lot of kids coming out of college and struggling with pretty low-paying jobs. My gut feeling is there isn’t as much opportunity as there used to be.”
Cheryle James, 57, a Portland, Ore.-area program manager for a telecommunications equipment and software company: “I don’t see as many people being able to realize the American Dream as there should be. I personally know people who live paycheck to paycheck, and I see a lot of kids coming out of college and struggling with pretty low-paying jobs. My gut feeling is there isn’t as much opportunity as there used to be.”

You hear quite often from pundits and pollsters that Americans are dissatisfied with the direction the country is taking and that citizens have little or no faith that their politicians will make things any better.

With the 2016 presidential election offering a chance to elect a new leader and potentially shift the country’s direction, I talked with a broad cross-section of people to learn their views during an August road trip from San Francisco to Idaho.

What struck me the most during my three-week trip – where I spoke to about two dozen people – was the depth and breadth of entrenched pessimism.

While watching Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, I was curious to see if the candidates would address this bleak mood. They did refer to the need to redirect the country’s path and to fight economic inequality. But none focused seriously on the enormous disconnect between the nation’s politicians and its people.

Consider Joe Aliotti, a 45-year-old park aide who earns a bit more than $10 an hour at California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park near the Oregon border. He told me: “I think the system is set up for the rich to get rich and the poor to remain poor. There is no way I ever will own a home in my lifetime unless I win the lottery.”

Aliotti thinks America “will eventually fade away. In fact, I think a lot of what America was about is already gone. The infrastructure is falling apart. So now we have abandoned buildings. Look at Detroit.”

The views voiced by so many – in coffee shops, gas stations, bakeries and elsewhere – were remarkably consistent, coming from conservatives and liberals alike.

A summary of what I heard goes like this: America is broken. Its politicians are unresponsive to the needs of those they govern. They don’t have a record that gives constituents confidence that lawmakers will break the gridlock in Washington and frame solutions for America’s social and economic woes. More attention needs to be paid to problems like homelessness. Meanwhile, those at the top gather up more and more wealth while the incomes of those in society’s middle and bottom tiers remain flat.

The upper 1 percent has had the best 10 years ever, and those are the main people who donate to politicians to get their agendas adopted. ... But we need to have the pendulum shift back so our society works for everyone. It hasn’t worked for the middle class for a long time.

Devon Morgante, 42, owner of Vita Cucina, a bakery-cafe in Crescent City

All this puts the American Dream – a belief that material comfort is available to all who work hard – out of reach for millions.

Faced with this grim outlook, some analysts proclaim that the 2016 presidential candidate who best addresses this corrosive pessimism will be the victor. There is a concern, though, that goes beyond which politician will win the White House: I wonder whether America, with its populace so mired in a dark view of its leaders, will find that pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling force that cripples the country.

Driving through the West, my husband and I passed by spectacular landscapes – the forests of California and Oregon, the grain fields of eastern Washington and the lakes of Idaho. Along the way, no clear answer emerged to my query about how pessimism affects a body politic, but I heard enough to feed my fears about the eroding effect of that view on the nation’s soul.

Not everyone had a negative view. A few were optimistic. But for the most part, dark was the view. Returning home, I talked with academics and pollsters, and many of their assessments mirrored what I had heard on the way to Boise.

Take this June poll, commissioned by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute: It found that three-quarters of respondents say the American Dream is suffering; more than two-thirds believe obstacles to realizing the American Dream are greater today than in the past; and almost two-thirds believe that the nation is moving down the wrong path.

When people speak of barriers to achieving the American Dream, they often mention the absence of opportunity, economic inequality and rules favoring the wealthy. Oddly enough, many voicing pessimism about the future of the nation were nonetheless positive about their personal lives.

The poll also found that the group feeling the most negative is 51- to 64-year-olds, especially white Americans. While a large majority wants to see immediate action to tackle the country’s problems, there is no unanimity about what path to take. The suggested solutions divide predictably on party lines: The Republicans want taxes, spending and regulation reduced; Democrats want to see more access and opportunity in health care and education.

Fred Yang, a senior vice president with Hart Research Associates in Washington, D.C., who has represented Democratic candidates nationwide, told me this is a key time in the evolution of people’s thinking about how the country and politicians are faring.

“I do think we are at a tipping point in which we are the first generation where there is a sense of pessimism not only about the future but about our children’s futures,” Yang said. “A lot of what I see in polls and focus groups is people saying they think politicians are out of touch – either the politicians are wealthy or they’re supping at the taxpayers’ trough. ...

“There is a real disconnect between the politician class and the people,” Yang added. He cited the 2014 nationwide elections: “More money was spent by both parties than ever before trying to get people to vote, and turnout was the lowest since 1942.”

Some I spoke to touched on low voter turnouts as a central piece of the problem. Cheryle James, a 58-year-old telecommunications manager from Oregon, said, “I am not inclined to believe that any of these candidates is going to make a difference unless they come together for the good of the nation ... But I know we won’t get things straightened out unless people get out and vote and refuse to accept things as they are.”

From many who are unhappy with the country’s condition, I heard a lot about economic inequality. Shigehiro Oishi, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, studied Americans’ happiness levels from 1972 to 2008; he and two colleagues noted the growing economic inequality in the country is “one of the most profound social changes in the United States over the last 40 years.”

Oishi said in an email, “Americans feel less fairness, and they trust others less in the years of larger income inequality – like the 2000s – compared to the years of less income inequality – like the 1970s and early 1980s.”

Along with income inequality, the media also is regularly cited as playing a singularly powerful, bad role in shaping Americans’ pessimism.

“The formula for film and television writing has been established as one that pivots upon overwhelmingly negative images of human behavior,” Janna Anderson, a communications professor at Elon University, said in an email. Television news centers on conflict and “the most boisterous people who occupy the far right or left fringes of opinion.”

“Add onto that,” Anderson said, “the fact that multibillion-dollar entities that do most of the advertising or news making – including the pharmaceutical industry, the military-industrial complex, anti-crime businesses and government agencies – must also emphasize negative future images to grow their concerns, and it is a miracle that Americans feel as positive as they do about the future.”

After absorbing this, I still want to believe Americans’ pessimism could be lessened if the role of money in politics were curbed sharply and if politicians – no longer so beholden to wealthy donors – began battling problems their constituents face daily, including skyrocketing costs for housing, education and health care.

Voting for the next president, though, requires a modicum of optimism that the election’s outcome may affect the country’s future in a positive way. Optimism doesn’t blossom from nowhere, however. What this country desperately needs are leaders with the vision and stature of a Franklin Delano Roosevelt – capable of reaching out to the millions of disaffected Americans and creating a political movement that forces Congress to act on the grave problems besetting the nation.

Susan Sward is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco.