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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Rebirth of Optimism in America Contains Seeds for Altering Politics

January 05, 1998|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | This is Ronald Brownstein's last Washington Outlook column

Journalists love earthquakes--the sudden crack in the wall that reveals the shadowy structure hidden beneath. But sometimes it really is more enlightening to watch the paint dry.

The most important changes, in other words, are often the most imperceptible. That's the case with one of the most overlooked stories of the past year: the return of American optimism.

This is more unusual than it seems. Americans may be, by nature, optimistic about their personal situations. But for most of the past 25 years, precious little of that optimism was evident when they looked toward their country's future. With only brief exceptions since the early 1970s, a majority of Americans--often an overwhelming majority--told pollsters they believed the country was on the wrong track.

Now, in its attitude toward the future, America is beginning to resemble the country it was through the early 1960s. Though some surveys still produce more ambivalent responses, most polls now show that a plurality of Americans believe the country is moving in the right direction. Consumer confidence is at a 28-year high. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, nearly half of all Americans described themselves as "highly contented" with their lives--by far the highest figure recorded in the past 30 years. Even President Clinton is enjoying his rosiest approval ratings ever.

Americans have not surrendered their pessimism lightly. But it has been beaten down by a pitiless procession of good news. The economy, now in its sixth year of growth, has driven down unemployment to its lowest level in a quarter century. The federal budget deficit, which once threatened to submerge Washington, is evaporating like a puddle on a sunny day. Crime is way down, and the rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock birth are stabilizing after years of explosive growth.

The return of American optimism, though, is arguably rooted in something more fundamental than any of this. After more than a decade of doubt, America once again considers itself the capital of the future. During the 1980s, many Americans glumly concluded that the 21st century would be forged in places like Tokyo and Taipei. Now, Americans see the future being shaped in Seattle (home of Microsoft, the emblematic company of the Information Age), Hollywood (which sets the beat for global culture) and Silicon Valley (the Finland Station for the computer and Internet revolutions). "Is this a great time, or what?" asks MCI in a revealing ad campaign that would have been laughed off the air not long ago.

Very few politicians have considered the implications of governing a society in which optimism about the future is again the default position. But if it lasts, this rebirth of American confidence could change politics in ways both subtle and profound.

For years, both the left and the right have framed much of their agenda around constructing a convincing explanation for the anxiety that gnawed at many Americans. Conservatives pointed their fingers at big government, welfare, affirmative action, immigrants and the forces of cultural change; liberals targeted the rich, the global economy and big business.

In this more optimistic environment, though, those demons are losing their horns. "There is just less hostility out there," says Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster. "It is a lot easier to get people agitated when things aren't going well."

In some respects, the politics of international trade remains the great exception to this pattern. Yet even the House rebellion against fast-track trade authority in November marked a subtle shift in attitudes. Ten years ago, trade anxieties focused on the fear that the U.S. could not compete with Japan in the most technologically advanced sectors. Today, trade anxieties are almost completely limited to the fear that the U.S. will lose low-skill jobs to low-wage countries such as Mexico. That's not a trivial concern, but it's a long way from the fear of national economic decline that haunted the 1980s.

The continued skirmishing over trade doesn't obscure the power of Hart's observation. In good times, it's difficult to mobilize the public behind ideological crusades. In these circumstances, voters prefer incrementalism, not sudden change; rather than polarization, they look for convergence. (Clinton has understood this far better than those Republicans still clamoring for more confrontation.) These days, the dominant message from Americans to their capital seems to be: Get along, compromise and stay out of our way.

That message can be very much of a mixed blessing. Indeed, the same can be said about the overall brightening of American attitudes. The good news is that the improved public mood encourages both parties to pursue reasonable compromises on the issues dividing them--as they did to balance the budget last summer. But the risk is that the good feelings can easily slide into triumphalism and complacency.

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