Mixture of Hope and Anxiety Defines Americans' Mood

Democracy gives us the opportunity to succeed, or to fail

LOOKING to the new year now before us, Americans view their country's prospects with a mixture of hope and anxiety. It's a very old story.

Commentary on the national mood has focused on economic dimensions. It has stressed ``economic insecurity,'' whether located in supposed fears of foreign competition, or immigrants ``taking away American jobs,'' or domestic manufacturers exiting for cheaper labor abroad, or the fruits of a malperforming educational system.

A cottage industry has grown up around the manufacture and sale of the idea of economic decline. This is curious, since the claim is strongly contradicted by data. The United States economy ranks as the world's leader by every primary measure - including productivity and total per person domestic production of goods and services (GDP).

What's more, real (inflation-controlled) per capita GDP is now the highest ever. GDP stood at $5.365 trillion in the third quarter of 1994, in dollars of 1987 purchasing power. In these same dollar values, GDP had been $4.405 trillion eight years earlier. Real per capita national output climbed from $18,300 to $20,600, or 13 percent, between 1986 and 1994.

Democracy is predicated not only on the normative judgment that ordinary people should be trusted in self-governing, but on the empirical conclusion that, given the full free flow of information, they can be trusted to assess and decide soundly. The latter is constantly reaffirmed in US experience.

The argument that the US is losing ground economically lacks foundation - and the public hasn't bought it. During the 1991-92 recession, economic concerns were high, but on the whole the public has given positive marks to those aspects of national economic performance they can personally observe.

In October, when Yankelovich Partners asked people how they felt their family finances were doing, 12 percent said ``very well,'' 70 percent ``fairly well,'' just 14 percent ``poorly,'' and 4 percent ``very poorly.'' While it's impossible to put a precise measure on such things, this own-position-assessment composite corresponds to the aggregate economic data picture pretty well. The latter shows much of the population doing fairly well economically, although a minority far larger than we would like aren't doing well at all.

Looking ahead, most Americans are fairly sanguine. Asked in the same Yankelovich survey what they expect their family's economic situation will be two years hence, only 10 percent of the public - which is, in the large, experiencing the highest standard of living in history - said they thought they would be worse off. Forty-four percent said they would be better off, 46 percent roughly the same as now.

Public-opinion readings show that the foreboding that Americans feel isn't primarily economic. Despite the alarmist literature, we think we are, on the whole, fortunate materially. Where we are worried - as we plainly are - involves an area that, with a little hesitation, I call the moral dimension.

My hesitation comes from the fact that ``moral'' sometimes carries with it a narrower connotation than I give it here. The moral dimension of a nation's life involves standards and behavior in personal comportment - the ethical basis on which we deal with one another.

We are hardly the first to realize that the great challenge of a liberal democratic, individualist society is moral, not economic. Alexis de Tocqueville devoted much of ``Democracy in America'' to this theme 160 years ago. Economically, the US he saw in the 1830s was extraordinarily dynamic. The French social theorist spent scarcely a moment worrying about the economic future of the American experiment.

The question as he saw it was whether a society centered on individual choice could remain a good society. Turning individuals loose produced enormous energy, but how would it be applied? Would national standards that are truly mass public standards be sufficiently high? These were pressing issues not just for Americans, because, Tocqueville believed, the tide of social and political individualism would rise everywhere. He was not pessimistic about the moral dimension of the US as a liberal and individualist society; he was, rather, concerned.

It was not that the society was certain to fail, for it had enormous resources. Telling ordinary people that they were ultimately responsible for the moral health of their society held great promise - some of which Tocqueville saw being realized in religious life and philanthropy. Nonetheless, he thought turning the entire sweep of ethical choice over to the general populace posed a huge continuing challenge.

Every generation of Americans has worried about this, for much the same reason Tocqueville did. Liberal, individualist societies confer upon general publics unprecedented opportunity, to succeed and to fail. This mix of hope and anxiety defines the national mood as 1994 draws to a close.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.