On The Trail: The new American malaise

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The United States economy added more than 7 million jobs over the last 12 months for the first time in history. Wages are rising, the national gross domestic product is booming, and the end of the pandemic appears just around the corner after the vast majority of Americans opted to take the safe and effective vaccines created by American scientists.

But Americans aren’t feeling it. In fact, they are in a historically bad mood, about the country, about their leaders and about their own lives.

For nearly two decades, more Americans have said the country is on the wrong track than heading in the right direction. More than half the country has said the country is moving in the wrong track in every Gallup poll since December 2003.

Since George W. Bush won reelection in 2004, Americans have disapproved of a president’s job performance more than they approve in 142 of 203 months, according to those same Gallup polls.

Blame hyperpartisan politics, which have cut into any president’s chances of building a multiparty coalition. Blame the Great Recession, which continues to exert its influence over everything from our outlook on the economy to child fertility rates. Blame rising gas prices and inflation, which dampens any gleam of hope that might come from low unemployment rates and a jobs bonanza.

And, most obviously, blame a pandemic that has killed nearly a million Americans, shuttered schools and businesses and left a frustrated and angry populace.

“We’re pushing a million deaths and the total disruption of our existence first with a president who denied it and secondly with a president who’s had difficulty communicating where we are and where we’re headed,” said Lee Miringoff, who runs polling at Marist College. “It’s made for a lot of dissatisfaction and frustration.”

The result is a population that is unsatisfied not just with politics, but with life. Data from the General Social Survey (GSS), conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, found that for the first time in 2021, more Americans said they were not too happy than the share who said they were very happy.

As recently as 2018, twice as many Americans said we were very happy than those who said they were not too happy, a trend that stretches back to the GSS’s earliest work in the 1970s.

Fewer Americans say they are living an exciting life, too. Just 36 percent called their lives exciting, according to the latest GSS data, the lowest figure ever recorded and down from 49 percent three years ago. Meanwhile, 59 percent said their lives were routine, the highest that share has ever been and the first time since 1991 that more than half of Americans have described themselves that way.

A recent Gallup survey found just 69 percent of Americans are satisfied with their overall quality of life, down 15 points from 2020. Only 1 in 5 Americans are satisfied with the moral and ethical climate of the nation. The share who are satisfied with the state of the economy dropped 25 points between 2020 and 2021, and another 10 points over the last year.

“There may be not a lot to be happy about,” said Jeffrey Jones, a senior editor at Gallup. “It’s kind of hard to see the bright side.”

Today’s bleak outlook is fueling pessimism in tomorrow, as well. Just 49 percent of Americans said they were generally more optimistic about what is ahead for the world in 2022, compared with 47 percent who said they were more pessimistic, according to a Marist College poll released in December.

In recent years, the share who were more optimistic than pessimistic has hovered around or just below 60 percent.

“We feel like we’re sliding backwards in so many ways,” Miringoff said. “Sliding backwards does not make for a happy people.”

American voters almost always take out their frustrations on the party in power, especially when that party’s leader, the president, is not on the ballot.

There are a thousand caveats about money and strategy and the candidates who will stand for office in this year’s midterm elections, but the historical record is unambiguous: The last time a president’s party gained seats in a midterm election, in 2002, twice as many Americans reported being very happy as not too happy, half thought the country was on the right track, and Bush’s approval rating was in the 60s.

Now, after so long in the doldrums, there is virtually nothing a president – or, for that matter, the opposition – can do to snap America out of its pessimistic streak.

Getting America back to a positive outlook “is usually a slower process,” Jones said. “The record would suggest probably not a lot is going to change.”

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