Washington — Only a brash journalist would try to describe the "mood" of America. But that there has been a profound change of mood I am assured by practicaly every book on political science and demography coming across my desk. It is of interest now as the nation goes through a change of government. In fact this change in government was perhaps precipitated by this change of mood.
IN 1782 French traveler Crevecoeur put his famous question, "What then is the American, this new man?" Visitors have been asking it ever since. Tocqueville, Mrs. Trollope, charles Dickens, Lord Bruce; they haven't always agreed but they have nearly always cited one attribute, a boastful (not to say bumptious) self-confidence. It has been a little irritating, even for friends: "It is impossible to conceive a more troublesome or more garrulous patriotism," wrote Tocqueville in 1835. "It wearies even those disposed to respect it." In 1837 Englishwoman Harriet Martnieau observed (with a sigh), "No peculiarity [of Americans] is more remarkable than their national contentment . . . This contentment will live down all contempt, and even all wonder."
Until recently this was the mood. And no wonder. We were the richest nation on Earth. We exported more goods. We were top dog abroad. What was that in "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean? We sang "Thy banners make tyranny tremble, when borne by the red, white and blue!" (Fat lot of "trembling" Iran is doing noe over the hostges!)
In a poll in 1971 people of eight countries were asked "If you were freee to do so, would you like to go and settle down in another country?" The percentage who would all over the place) was the highest -- 41 percent. It was lowest in the United States at 12 percent. It would have been even lower perhaps if young people hadn't voted their protest over Vietnam.
Here wer are years later, and here is a typical book, a fat symposium of politicalsocial essays edited by Seymour Lipset, called "The Third CEntury" (Hoover Institution Press) with a summary at the end by Alex Inkeles, Stanford University: T"During the last 25 years," he says, "the typical American seems to have experienced a very sharp, indeed one might say a precipitous, decline in his confidence as a political being."
All sorts of answers to national polls are offered, registering anxiety and concern. Professor Inkeles uses the word "malaise" just as Jimmy Carter did when he came down from the mountain to deliver his energy speech. The "disenchantment" takes two forms, we are told. First, a growing doubt whether our institutions are capable of doing their respective jobs (courts, presidency, industry); second, specific disillusionment with the political system itself (overlong elections, excessive primaries, paralysis in Washington). The author goes so far as to call it a crisis of confidence, and uses the word "despair."
I have noted this feeling of discouragement, of malaise if you will, in recent studious books on political science. The United States is in a gloomy period -- unemployment, inflation, high interest rates, lowered prestige abroad, Iranians thumbing their noses, Russia allegedly outbuilding us in nuclear arms. Can there be doubt that these feelings helped produce a Reagan landslide? Was it contempt for Jimmy Carter, enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan, or just a general revulsion over a bagful of assorted discontents and miseries?
Here is the way social philosopher Inkeles sums it up in a typical comment as the US enters its third century:
"Whatever interpretation is put on it, there seems no denying the fact. The Americans' previously exceptional pride in their governmental institutions and their vibrant confidence in their personal political efficacy have vastly declined. What was previously a great, almost deadening 'hurrah' has now shrunk to a barely audible whisper."
The analysis was written well before the political upset as the result of which Governor Reagan, for better or worse, is now preparing to try to lift the mood.