After the disappointments of the Bush years and the Obama years, many Americans aren’t sure where next to turn. Faith in Congress has collapsed. Faith in bureaucrats is nonexistent. Yet, the crises keep on coming.
In a new Associated Press-GfK poll, more than half of respondents agreed that “Washington can do little to effectively lessen threats such as climate change, mass shootings, racial tensions, economic uncertainty and an unstable job market.”
And that’s before the Ebola crisis hit.
The biggest crisis of all, however, is one that politicians and policymakers have had the least success in remedying: our national crisis of confidence.
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It’s easy to mistake our shaken confidence for the kind of “malaise” that Jimmy Carter was mocked for bemoaning. And pundits and officeholders can get a lot of airtime blaming America’s misfortunes on an attitude problem, calling us — or those who disagree with them — little more than “a nation of whiners.”
Whenever populists stand up and blame the elites who run the show, however, they’re slammed as dangerous demagogues who aren’t “solutions-oriented.”
Why the impasse? On the one hand, Americans have lost confidence in the power of government to solve our largest problems. On the other, they’ve lost confidence in the idea that there’s anything more powerful than government. If we can’t count on Washington to control the malevolent forces that dwarf us all, what — or who — can we count on?
A rhetorical question like that can send us into pretty fatalistic territory. Rather than seeing our challenges as evil or even bad, we can chalk them up to mere fate. Joe Teasdale, a 59-year-old assistant engineer at a Wisconsin casino, summed up the view in his response to the AP. “I think what we’ve got going on here in America is the perfect storm of not-good things,” he said.
If we want to recover the feeling that we control our own destiny, that view can hurt or help us. If we start to think we’re inevitably doomed by an unfeeling universe, or by our inherent human folly, we’ll view bad government with the same resignation — and actually seal our fate.
If, on the other hand, we accept the idea that bad things happen in the course of things, and that it’s ultimately on us to prevail, we can start finding small ways to take charge that might quickly add up.
In “Democracy in America,” written about 180 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville thought that was our best hope for a free future. By forming associations among friends and neighbors, we can start creating areas of reliable order in our lives. The closer that kind of order is to our homes and neighborhoods, the more confidently we can project it outward.