By Ashley Rindsberg, Friday, April 9, 2010, at 3:20 pm.
When Barack Obama swept into power, he promised the American people change. Consciously or not, Americans are experiencing a wholesale change, even if its sources are not the landmark legislation and brand-new institutional ideas that, some believed, would quickly usher in a new era.
Although there is a flurry of public change around them, from a massive health-care overhaul to a radically revamped media, Americans aren’t rushing into the street to embrace it.
More than simply withdrawing from activities of public life, Americans are turning inward, according to the newly released “U.S. Mind and Mood Report” white paper from Euro RSCG Worldwide PR and Euro RSCG Life. They are not participating in the town hall but hunkering down in the family den. They are unexcited about being involved in political initiatives and the direction of the country (even though they remain intensely interested) but are quite content with the local park, their personal safety and home life.
On a moral level, it could be argued that this is a positive turn away from gross materialism and toward more homespun values and ways of life. But it can also be stultifying.
The Euro white paper reveals that Americans are overwhelmingly negative about every sphere of public life: Fifty-three percent of respondents disapprove of the state of finance and the economy; 48.4 percent have negative feelings toward businesses and corporations, compared with 12.7 percent who have positive ones; 46.1 percent disapprove of health care, versus 18.6 percent who approve; and 37.8 percent disapprove of international relations, compared with 14.8 percent who approve.
Many Americans felt they took the first, crucial step in bringing about change by voting in Barack Obama and empowering his Democratic Party in Congress. But with bitterness characterizing all areas of public life for Americans, it’s possible they might be considering their electoral act, which was branded “historic,” to have been in vain.
In either case, they’re looking for solutions outside of Washington—but also outside of city hall, the state legislature, the media and big business. When considering the fractured opinion on health care, it’s clear that Americans aren’t united even in their dissatisfaction. So how could they begin to agree on a solution?
Americans seem to be in survival mode; progressivism has become an extravagance. It’s flight, fight or freeze—and many are choosing the latter. After all, if getting by is so difficult for the average middle-class American, why would he or she be energized to fight for the rights or situation of someone else? As Americans turn inward, American society starts to look more like a theory, and the goal of serving it seems increasingly lofty.
But if the doom-and-gloom forecasts of today spell chances of resurgent conservatism tomorrow, one thing is certain: It will be a different kind of conservatism from what America has previously known.
As the economy continues to founder, what is not happening is a violent sectarian backlash. Rather, in the midst of all this, as the “Mind and Mood” paper points out, an openly lesbian woman has been elected mayor of Houston. There is no loud age-old call to identify a minority as the source of the trouble. On the contrary: Big business and big politics—on Wall Street and in Washington—are singled out for blame.
The politics of recession hinge on three things: jobs, jobs and more jobs. In the jobless recovery the country is now seeing, even a touting of economic improvements smacks of insult to the unemployed and underemployed millions. With a new study predicting that significant job growth in California, where unemployment is at a shocking 12.5 percent, will only make a plodding arrival in 2012, the question isn’t so much about the effect on short-term politics but on long-term culture.
As Benjamin Schwarz, writing in The Atlantic, put it: “Today’s members of the middle and professional classes wonder daily what the new normal will be. They’re aware, some vaguely, others acutely, that during this period—the most chastening experience in their lives—their families’ habits and attitudes are changing both conspicuously and imperceptibly. They chew over what further adjustments are prudent; they worry over what additional ones may become necessary. And perhaps most disquietingly, they speculate whether the adjustments they’ve made in the face of unprecedented uncertainty—and whether that uncertainty itself—will become enduring features of their lives.”
Change has definitely arrived. It’s just not the kind of change for which millions of Americans had hoped.
In Monday’s post, see what the findings of Euro’s “mind and mood” survey of 386 Connecticut residents say about hot topics in that bellwether state.