Chronic disillusionment and burden of optimism weigh down US

Opinion: defensive US is struggling to come to grips with the loss of its sense of greatness

Independence Day fireworks explode over the Washington monument in Washington, DC. Photograph: EPA/Allison Shelley

Independence Day fireworks explode over the Washington monument in Washington, DC. Photograph: EPA/Allison Shelley

Mon, Jul 7, 2014, 01:00

America’s infatuation with the World Cup came at the perfect moment, illuminating the principle that you can lose and still advance.

Once our nation saw itself as the undefeatable cowboy John Wayne. Now we bask in the prowess of the unstoppable goalie Tim Howard, a biracial kid from New Jersey with Tourette’s syndrome. With our swaggering and sanguine image deflated by epic unforced errors, Americans are playing defence, struggling to come to grips with a world where we can no longer dictate all the terms, win all the wars and lead all the charges.

“The Fourth of July was always a celebration of American exceptionalism,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “Now it’s a commiseration of American disappointment.” From Katrina to Fallujah, we’re less the Shining City Upon a Hill than the House of Broken Toys. For the first time, perhaps, hope is not as much a characteristic of American feelings. Are we winners who have been through a rough patch? Or losers who have soured our sturdy and spiritual DNA with too much food, too much greed, too much narcissism, too many lies, too many spies, too many fat-cat bonuses, too many cat videos?

Biggest and baddest

Are we still the biggest and baddest? Or are we forever smaller, stingier, dumber, less ambitious and more cynical? Have we lost control of our not-so-manifest destiny? We’re a little bit scared of our own shadow. And, sadly, we see ourselves as a people who can never understand one another. We’ve given up on the notion that we can cohere, even though the founders forged America by holding together people with deep differences.

Andrew Kohut, who has polled for Gallup and the Pew Research Center for more than four decades, calls the mood “chronic disillusionment”. He said that in this century we have had only three brief moments when a majority of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things were going: the month W took office, right after the 9/11 attacks and the month we invaded Iraq.

The old verities seem quaint. If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll lose out to those guys who can wire computers to make bets on Wall Street faster than the next guy to become instant multimillionaires. Our quiet traditional virtues bow to our noisy visceral divisions, while churning technology is swiftly remoulding the national character in ways that are still a blur. Boldness is often chased away by distraction, confusion, hesitation and fragmentation.

Barack Obama vowed to make government cool again, but young people, put off by the dysfunction in our political, financial, military and social institutions, are eschewing government jobs. Idealism is swamped by special interests. The middle class is learning to do more with less. The president, sort of the opposite.

“The world sees us as having gone from a president who did too much to a president who does too little,” said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. David Axelrod, the president’s Pygmalion, mused: “Reagan significantly changed the trajectory of the country for better and worse. But he restored a sense of clarity. Bush and Cheney were black and white, and after them, Americans wanted someone smart enough to get the nuances and deal with complexities. Now I think people are tired of complexity and they’re hungering for clarity, a simpler time. But that’s going to be hard to restore in the world today.”

Young people are more optimistic than their rueful elders, especially those in the technology world. They are the anti-Cheneys, competitive but not triumphalist. They think of themselves as global citizens, not interested in exalting America above all other countries.

“The 23-year-olds I work with are a little over the conversation about how we were the superpower brought low,” said Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed. “They think that’s an ‘older person conversation’. They’re more interested in this moment of crazy opportunity, with the massive economic and cultural transformation driven by Silicon Valley. And kids feel capable of seizing it. Technology isn’t a section in the newspaper any more. It’s the culture.”

Ben Domenech, the 32-year-old libertarian who writes The Transom newsletter, thinks many millennials are paralysed by all their choices. He quoted Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman: “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.”

He also noted that, given their image-conscious online life in the public eye, millennials worry about attaching themselves with a click to the wrong clique or hashtag: “It heightens the level of uncertainty, anxiety and risk aversion, to know that you’re only a bad day and half a dozen tweets from being fired.”

‘Burden of optimism’

Jaron Lanier, the Microsoft research scientist and best-selling author, thinks the biggest change in America is that “technology’s never had to shoulder the burden of optimism all by itself.” And that creates what Haass calls a tension between “dysfunctional America vs innovative America”.

Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution, which depicts the Patriots warts and all, warns against gilding the past. “They weren’t better than us back then; they were trying to figure things out and justify their behaviour, kind of like we are now,” he said. “From the beginning to the end, the Revolution was a messy work in progress. The people we hold up as paragons did not always act nobly but would then later be portrayed as always acting nobly. It reminds you of the dysfunction we’re in the middle of now.

“The more we can realise that we’re all making it up as we go along and somehow muddling through making ugly mistakes, the better. We’re not destined for greatness. We have to earn that greatness. What George Washington did right was to realise how much of what he thought was right was wrong.” – New York Times service

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