It's time to end our national pessimism


Here's what we believe: For most of our history, Americans -- who planted colonies on inhospitable shores, rebelled against the most formidable power in the world, settled a wild continent, built an industrial empire, broke the gravitational pull of Earth and landed on the moon -- have been a wildly optimistic people. Only in this new century have we come to believe that the next generation's fate might be worse than ours.

Here's what's true: We're not that optimistic, and haven't been for years. For decades, we've believed that those who follow us will have it harder than we had it.

This is the great American disconnect. We're living a myth, but then again, it is the myth that defines us -- and our politics.

Today, by a two-to-one ratio, Americans believe the next generation will be worse off than we are. Some 23 years ago, Americans believed by a two-to-one ratio that the next generation would be worse off than we were.

In three decades of CBS News/New York Times polling, Americans have held the pessimistic view.

History may be the story of humankind's great achievements -- the electric light, air travel, the microwave oven, the iPad -- but it is just as much the story of humankind's great disappointments.

When World War I ended, the Great Depression followed, and the League of Nations fizzled.

World War II, the worst calamity in history, ended with freedom triumphant. But within months, the world settled into a debilitating Cold War that drained our resources and spirit and warped our foreign and domestic policies.

Communism fell, but soon the peace dividend disappeared. Terrorism touched our shores. Our freedoms were threatened by our enemies and by our own government. An incapacitating recession sapped our energies and dampened our hopes.

That's a short, oversimplified, and relentlessly pessimistic history of the past century. It does not take into account the joy from new babies, the hope from new medicines, the ecstasy of new musical forms, the pride of Americans -- black, disabled, female, and gay -- who won new opportunities and gained the respect denied to them by tradition, stubbornness, laws, and simple hatred.

But the beginning of knowledge is the recognition of our true selves. Americans are optimistic and pessimistic, bravely approaching the future -- but deeply afraid of its uncertainty.

There is so much we don't know:

Will Iran get the bomb? Will the economy return to robust health? Will the enemies we don't know be even worse than the ones we do know? Will one challenge be replaced by another, just as Nazism and Fascism were followed by Communism -- and just as the threat from the Soviets was replaced by the threat from al-Qaeda?

Given so much uncertainty, it is natural -- rational, even -- to feel unsettled.

Of course we feel the next generation will have it worse than we did, a sentiment fortified by this month's report that U.S. median income is the lowest since 1995. But we've been feeling that way for years. It shouldn't alarm us, whether we're Democrats struggling to defend the President or Republicans trying to use our unease to topple the President.

The key to U.S. history isn't that we thought the future would be brighter, but that we did things to assure it would be. Use that as the prism through which you view the campaign, and your perspective will be markedly different.

Candidates love to say American elections are about the future. But our history and our polling data show us that they are not about what life may be in the future, but whether we have the capacity to control the present -- and thus to mold the future.

That's what campaign 2012 is really about, or should be.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Contact him at: