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Pessimism Pervades the Most Fortunate of Nations

By Everett Carll Ladd. Everett Carll Ladd is professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and president of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. / March 5, 1993



OPINION surveys taken in many countries have been reporting a common finding: majorities of record or near-record proportions dissatisfied with or pessimistic about their nation's political and economic performance and their own personal prospects.

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Some of these results are readily explained. Polls taken late last year by Gallup for the European Community in 18 countries of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union found deep dissatisfaction with the new institutions. For example, 63 percent said they were dissatisfied with democracy as they saw it working in their respective nations. Economic pessimism was high almost everywhere. All this is understandable: The transition from the old Communist order really is painful; that system collapsed only after it had failed utterly.

But high levels of public dissatisfaction also are being found in advanced industrial democracies.

In Canada, for example, recent polling by Decima shows more than 80 percent saying they are dissatisfied with the federal government's performance and 65 percent dissatisfied with their provincial government; only 7 percent call the Canadian economy "good" (and literally no one calls it "excellent"), 80 percent are dissatisfied with "the direction the country is going in today," and 65 percent believe that their personal prospects for the future are worse now than a few years ago.

Shortly before Brian Mulroney announced he was stepping down as prime minister and leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, Gallup Canada found only 17 percent approved of his handling of his job; 76 percent disapproved. But virtually all of the country's politicians, including the leaders of the other three national parties, got negative marks.

In France, economic pessimism is rampant, and the entire political class has come under intense criticism. The ruling Socialists appear posed for a massive defeat in the upcoming (first round, March 21) elections for the National Assembly. Polls taken by Institut BVA suggest that the Socialists may not win more than about 100 of the 555 seats, compared with 400 for their two principal right-of-center opponents, the Union for French Democracy and the Rally for the Republic.

In Britain, Gallup interviews in February showed 49 percent of persons living there indicated they would "like to go and settle in another country" if free to do so - the highest proportion since that question was first asked in 1948. Anthony King, a professor of government at Essex University, wrote of these and related findings that Britain is "approaching a crisis of national morale."

The situation is much the same elsewhere in Europe - in Germany, Italy, and Spain, for example. And here in the US, throughout 1992 polls recorded high levels of negativism and worry that apparently contributed mightily to the defeat of a sitting president. What accounts for so much public dissatisfaction in so many different, generally prosperous and fortunate, countries?

One answer is that given by the Clinton campaign last year: It's all the economy. But much more is at play. The increase in professed dissatisfaction in many of these countries preceded the current economic dip. Also, dissatisfaction in the US reached its peak when most indicators showed the economy growing again.

It will take more work before we can adequately explain this important phenomenon of persistently high public pessimism in the most fortunate of nations. But here are three suggestions on where to look for its causes:

First, there appears to have been a discovery en mass that money really doesn't buy happiness. The economies of the advanced industrial democracies are great success stories; other areas of social performance - from matters involving the family, to drug use, to crime - show far less comforting trends.

Second, publics across the industrial world don't know what to do about government. They see no alternative to its playing a large role, but they are increasingly frustrated as they see it malperforming and doubt that it can be made to work better.

Finally, it's striking to see how so many measures of national satisfaction and confidence began to shift from historically observed levels at the full onset of the television age in the US in the 1960s: The pattern of American answers to the entire mix of national-assessment questions is dramatically more negative over the past quarter century than during the preceding three decades.