Declinism resurgent: The election campaign encourages America to feel worse about itself than it needs to
SIX months from polling day, America’s election campaign has opened with a blizzard of tendentious commercials, contrived razzamatazz and mind-numbing trivia. Was the stadium in Ohio at which Barack Obama launched his campaign on May 5th really “half empty”, as a conservative website reported? (Probably not: there were perhaps 14,000 Obama supporters in a stadium that can accommodate some 20,000 people.) Had the vice-president, Joe Biden, embarrassed his boss by expressing support for gay marriage when Mr Obama’s own thoughts were supposedly still “evolving”? (Not for long: within days Mr Obama announced that he now supported it too.) On May 8th Mr Obama popped up to Albany, New York, with a new gimmick. He unveiled a five-point job-creating “to do” list, which he knows the Republicans in a gridlocked Congress will not enact.
Some people love elections. But data compiled by the redoubtable Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution show that this one is unfolding against a deep gloom. Four recent surveys have found that on average only 28% of Americans are satisfied with the condition of the country, while 70% are dissatisfied. Three recent surveys have found that between 69% and 83% of Americans believe that the country is still in recession (it isn’t), and only half believe that a recovery is under way.
If voters conclude that Mr Obama has failed them on the economy, they will fire him and hire Mitt Romney in November. That is normal. Less normal is how many Americans have come to think that the country is not just passing through a rough patch but is in long-term decline. A survey of 12 swing states found 55% agreeing that the jobs being created in the recovery are of lower quality than those jobs lost during the recession. By a margin of nearly two to one, Americans expect their children’s jobs, salaries and benefits to be worse than their own. Some 35% go so far as to say that America’s best days are behind it.
America is prone to bouts of “declinism”. In the 1980s the country was in a funk about the rise of Japan and its own vanishing competitiveness. Another bout was bound to follow China’s rise, two grinding wars and the deep recession of 2008. The gloom is nourished by a fountain of declinist literature. In “Time to Start Thinking” Ed Luce of the Financial Times ponders an America “in descent”. Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of Brookings claim in a book on America’s politics (reviewed here two weeks ago) that “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks”.