Opinion | American Optimism, R.I.P. – The New York Times

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Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
I thought that we were a sunny people. I thought that optimism was the fundamental nature of the United States of America, the whole point. We had an endless horizon that encouraged people to dream their biggest dreams. We were the hope when all other hope had run dry. We were, as Ronald Reagan loved to say, “a shining city upon a hill.” Look up — look skyward — to see us. Behold our glow.
Maybe I thought all of that because Reagan was president when I was finishing high school and starting college and paying close, mature attention to American politics for the first time. He told us that it was morning again in America. That simple, syrupy assurance was supposedly the key to his popularity, the bond between him and voters: He tapped into our stubborn confidence, captured our intrinsic faith.
I’m not so sure anymore.
Last weekend, NBC News released a poll that affirmed what other recent surveys also said: An overwhelming majority of Americans — 71 percent, according to NBC — believe that this country is on the wrong track. That’s a profound pessimism.
It’s also a durable one. Struck by that figure, I looked back. Most Americans were convinced that we were on the wrong track under Donald Trump, and most Americans had that same negative feeling under Barack Obama. Granted, we’re not talking about the same group of Americans, but we are talking about a negative mind-set — a timid feeling — that travels easily back and forth across partisan lines and grips enough people in the middle to be the prevailing sensibility no matter who controls Congress, no matter who’s in the White House. Anxiety rules. Worry reigns.
Have our politicians just become that bad? Our politics that broken? Is our luck done? Have we played out our string?
Any or all of that is possible. But whatever the case, we don’t see ourselves striding toward a better tomorrow. We see ourselves tiptoeing around catastrophe. That was true even before Covid. That was true even before Trump.
Was it one of the dynamics on display on Tuesday in Virginia and New Jersey, where voters abruptly cooled on Democrats and warmed to Republicans? We seem to be unhappy with and unsure about whoever’s holding the reins, which we then pass to their opponents, so that we can become unhappy with and unsure about them. Our cynicism begets our seesaw.
In 2014, by which point our downer disposition was well established, Dean Obeidallah wrote an article for the Daily Beast with the headline: “We’ve Been on the Wrong Track Since 1972.” That was, according to Obeidallah, a year after pollsters began asking the right-track, wrong-track question. He crunched the subsequent numbers and determined that “over the past 40 years, polls have consistently found that a solid majority of Americans have not been happy with the direction of our nation.”
“Actually,” he added, “there were three times in the past 40-plus years that a solid majority of Americans, for a sustained period of time, believed that the nation was on the right track.” One such time was from 1984 to 1986, during Reagan’s presidency. Another was more than a decade later, during the late 1990s, when Bill Clinton presided over a whirring economy.
And another was in the months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Americans decided to rally not only around the flag but also around a positive attitude.
Which turns out to be the exception, not the rule. There has been little such rallying since.
On Gallup’s website, I checked out this table of responses from Americans over the years to the question of whether they were generally satisfied with how the country was faring at the time. I had to go back 17 years, to early 2004, to find the last time a majority of Americans professed satisfaction. Since then, the satisfied have been a minority — often a small one. The unsatisfied have frequently been above 65 percent.
Maybe we just have high standards? Maybe how we feel about our direction at a given moment has nothing to do with our long-range expectations and we’re optimistic in a larger sense?
Then again, maybe we’ve changed. Or had bought into a myth about our mirth. I just know that right now, and last year, and the year before that and … well, we’re most definitely not a sunny people. We’re cloudy. Cloudy with thunderstorms ahead.
What candidates don’t do can have as much impact on an election as what they do, and Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia was a triumph of omission. It’s no accident that he never beckoned Donald Trump to campaign with him. It’s no fluke that he never appeared in public with Trump, the most popular figure in the Republican Party by far.
But Youngkin, the first Republican to win a governor’s race in Virginia since 2009, also never denounced Trump. Never renounced him. Never provoked him.
In no sane world and by no sound reading did Youngkin run without or away from Trump. Youngkin simply chose Trump in spirit over Trump in the flesh, a Trump Lite tack sure to be mimicked by Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms and beyond. I explore this further in this essay, which The Times published yesterday.
Here’s Sabrina Imbler, in The Times, on pack behavior: “Since time immemorial, people have witnessed groups of animals moving collectively and in unison: Starlings flock, fish school, midges swarm and heavy-metal heads mosh.” (Thanks to Laura Horian of Skaneateles, N.Y., for nominating this.)
Here’s Kama Einhorn, also in The Times, on a sudden expansion of family: “Nevertheless, my new biological brother (immediately entered as ‘BB’ on my phone) and I were in constant contact, splashing around cluelessly in our new gene pool.” (Stefan Schueter, Buenos Aires)
Sticking with The Times, here’s Alexandra Jacobs, reviewing a new biography, “The Radical Potter,” by Tristram Hunt: “Will your eyes glaze over reading about the importance of Britain’s naval prowess to the ceramics trade? Perhaps, but on balance this is as dishy a biography about dishes as can be imagined.” (Janice Mensink, Salt Lake City)
And here’s Maureen Dowd, in a column that springs from an interview with the internet titan Eric Schmidt: “Schmidt said an Oxford student told him, about social media poison, ‘The union of boredom and anonymity is dangerous.’ Especially at the intersection of addiction and envy.” (Julie Brookbank of Mitchell, S.D., and D.E. Fenton of Seattle, among others)
Moving on to The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz noted that personal taste “is, by definition, a private matter — which is exactly what it ceases to be the moment you foist it on someone else. That is the problem with the chain email. Other people’s vinyl recliners do not show up in your living room and require you to sit on them.” (Stewart Wachs, Otsu, Japan)
Also in The New Yorker, here’s Sheila Yasmin Marikar on the durable allure of this country’s most populous state: “Wildfires, drought, the prospect of Caitlyn Jenner as governor: Nothing can stop people from moving to California.” (Dana Wyles, Manhattan)
A similarly zippy one-liner by Dana Milbank in The Washington Post: “Trump’s Republican flock has achieved herd immunity from the truth.” (Stephen Schoenbaum, Manhattan, and Amy Helfman, Cambridge, Mass.)
And on a gentler note, The San Jose Mercury News published this reflection by an oncologist, Tyler Johnson, on the winding down of a life: “Beyond the reach of the naked eye, the symphony and industry of life’s molecular machinery is likewise stilled: No electrical impulse rings the heart, no oxygen traverses the single-cell barrier of the alveoli, no cells labor to replicate their DNA.” (Andrew Maxfield, Provo, Utah)
Last weekend my brother, Harry, and his wife, Sylvia, visited me. Regan spent the first years of her life in their home, from which I pried her, using all the powers of persuasion in my possession. Her elation when they appeared on my doorstep was indescribable because it was infinite. Dogs are pack animals, and Regan hates nothing more than the disbanding of her pack. She loves nothing more than its reconstitution, to which I attribute her radiance in this photograph.
Many of you have generously continued to pass along artful, whimsical and just plain eccentric business names that currently exist or once existed. As promised, I’ll occasionally showcase some of them in this recurring newsletter feature.
The very first time I listed such names, I noted that hair salons and pet groomers seem to demonstrate particular verbal ambition. The same holds true for coffee shops, including:
Slave to the Grind in Bronxville, N.Y. (Thanks to Robert Devlin of Bronxville for flagging this.)
Brew HaHa!, a small chain around Wilmington, Del. (Carol VanZoeren, Wilmington)
The Sentient Bean in Savannah, Ga. (Cindy Stevens, Savannah)
Artistic Grounds in Toronto.
Moving away from coffee, here are some other business names present and past that rose to the top of my attention and affection:
Planet of the Crepes, a food truck in Tucson, Ariz. (Chris Berry, Glendale, Calif.)
The Has Bin, a secondhand clothing store in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Liz Cunningham, Halifax)
The Scone Age, a bakery and cafe in Dunedin, Fla. (Robert Goldwitz, Manhattan)
Sconehenge, a bakery and cafe in Berkeley, Calif. (Ted Rodriguez-Bell, Berkeley)
Peony’s Envy, a nursery and garden store in Bernardsville, N.J. (Anthony Calise, Jamestown, R.I.)
Joie des Livres, a bookstore in Pacific Beach, Wash. (Evan Prenovitz, Seattle)
I’m responsible for just one seminar this semester at Duke University, and inasmuch as it concerns the modern gay rights movement, I’ve talked with my students about the buildup to, and the aftermath of, the Stonewall riots of 1969.
We’ve discussed a subsequent period when editors at The Times banned the use of “gay” and then, decades later, the newspaper’s watershed publication of gay and lesbian wedding announcements. We’ve examined how AIDS initially threatened but ultimately accelerated Americans’ acceptance of L.G.B.T.Q. people.
All of that makes sense: The course is titled The Media and LGBTQ+ Americans.
But its formal name, I have come to realize, isn’t its real focus. What we keep pausing to consider and repeatedly come back to is how messy people are. How complicated. How they exceed your expectations when you’re about to lose faith. How they do the opposite when you’re on the verge of complacency.
Consider the AIDS epidemic. It brought out the worst in people. It brought out the best in them, too. It sometimes brought out both in the same person, because that’s how history and life work: unpredictably, incongruously, irreducibly. A bending arc? No. I see a jagged line.
In American life right now, certainly in our politics, we hasten to affix labels to people, to put them into boxes: good, bad, ally, enemy. Those labels and boxes all too often fit. But they’re dead-end constructs, and they’re not true to the fullness and complexity of who we are and how we behave. They also shortchange the existence of unclassifiable, unlikely heroes.
The subject of our conversation in class the other day was the advice columnist Abigail Van Buren, a.k.a. Dear Abby, and how she and her widely syndicated, phenomenally popular newspaper column were — in the late 1950s, ’60s and ’70s — far ahead of the curve when it came to treating gay people with respect.
We’d all listened to an endearing interview she gave to the journalist Eric Marcus, who showcased it in an episode of his long-running podcast “Making Gay History.” He wanted to know what was behind her compassionate view of gay people, and he didn’t come up with any one eureka answer. She hadn’t mulled the matter all that extensively. She wasn’t on a mission. She was just doing what felt right to her, and she continued doing it even as some of her readers warned her that she’d burn in hell.
I bring that up because dozens of you, maybe even scores of you, have sent me emails since my move into academia last summer asking me to write about what I’m teaching students.
I don’t know that I’m succeeding in teaching them anything: I’m new to this and fumbling my way through it. But I know what I want to teach them, and it’s that no simple formulas explain the march of human events and no tidy scripts predict it. The world is a muddle. That’s the hell of it — but also the heaven.
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