Our national discussion of public affairs gets the line from an old Johnny Mercer song exactly backward: Rather than “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative,” it greatly exaggerates bad news, and relentlessly ignores what’s going right.
I understand the reasons the downside of modern life dominates political debate. For the media, hundreds of thousands of safe plane landings make much less interesting news than one crash with a lot of fatalities, and exposing public corruption or gross incompetence commands much more attention than reporting statistics that show progress in public health, a decline in malnutrition, or improvements in air and water quality.
For politicians and social reformers, the more vigorously they emphasize problems, the stronger their case for change. I’m pretty sure that no clip of a Senator complimenting a Cabinet secretary on the good job she has done has ever gone viral, or inspired a movement. Even incumbents are now much likelier to stress their commitments to making drastic changes in the status quo than to take credit for any specific part of it. Ronald Reagan’s politically potent optimism — “Morning in America” — would be a much harder sell today, though it would be more accurate: in nearly all respects we are better off as a society now than we were in 1984.
Thanks in part to this skewed version of reality, contemporary conventional wisdom holds that most of the things that are wrong with our society are getting worse; that those charged with governing are not only failing to make improvements, but are often responsible for the deterioration; and that this is happening because elected leaders are ignoring, if not perverting, the will of those who voted for them.
Polls show the public widely believes that things are going in the wrong direction, and that most of the blame for this should be placed on those in authority. For obvious reasons, this view is especially strongly supported by Republican conservatives, whose anti-government ideology predisposes them to it, and whose partisan purposes it serves. But it also has far more adherents among many of my co-members of the left than either a clear-headed assessment of the facts or our own ideological and political interests should dictate.
But it’s wrong: in fact many trends in American society are pointing in the right direction, and by allowing ourselves to be swayed by the negative view, we’re both missing the true picture, and dampening our ability to face up to the problems that do remain, and have a serious discussion about how to fix them.
Of the five areas that are the focus of most current public discussion in America—terrorism, immigration, the economy, race and climate change—there’s good news about the first four. Both the reality and the quality of the governmental response are better than is usually depicted, and they’re moving in a better direction than most people realize.
When it comes to terrorism, despite the recent horrific incident in San Bernardino, the most salient fact is how scarce successful attacks by Islamic fanatics have been since September 11, 2001, due in part to the extensive security apparatus we have established—without significantly reducing our civil liberties. Immigration—confusingly lumped together with terrorism in the GOP primary—continues to be both a significant positive contributing factor for our economy, and powerful evidence of the degree to which much of the world envies our quality of life.
Our economy has recovered from the crash of 2008—itself caused by too little government—better than any other in the developed world—supported by a range of public policies adopted since that time. What is new about the problem of excessive police violence in their interaction with African-Americans is not that it exists, but that we are confronting it more openly than we ever have before, and beginning to deal with it.
And climate change, the one case where the situation is objectively getting worse, is the area in which we have seen by far the greatest advance in the adoption of appropriate public policy.
With the partial exception of the economy, there’s no justification in any of these subjects for believing the problem is caused by failure to adhere to the will of the voters—as they actually express it, as opposed to the wishful thinking of some of the most fervent ideologues. The opposite is more nearly true: voters actually help cause some of these problems. For example, the fact that majority-white electorates choose so many American prosecutors is one reason it’s so hard to fix the excessive use of force by police officers against African-Americans; the role of whites on juries is another. And the voters to whom Republican presidential candidates appeal by indiscriminate Muslim bashing actually hurt efforts to counter the recruitment efforts of fanatical Islamic terrorists—and while they are not a majority among the public as a whole, their influence in Republican primaries not only derailed the last effort at immigration reform, it has converted of many former supporters of that effort into staunch opponents.
It is true that there are policies that would help in the fight against economic inequality that are being suppressed despite having majority public support—like an increased minimum wage. But even here the voters in their current frame of mind do more harm than good to the basic issue, by their opposition to increased revenue that would fund programs like increased aid for low- and middle-income students, and their joining in the condemnation of government in general that electorally often outweighs support for particular programs.
I know that my positive assessment of both current conditions and the public policies that affect them are minority opinions, and I will defend both arguments in later columns. But there is one criticism than I know will come from my friends on the left that has to be addressed first.
My view that the existing quality of governance in America is better than generally perceived is in no way an argument that the status quo should be preserved. The opposite is true: I am an advocate of significant improvement in the public response to every problem I have discussed here. In fact, much of my motivation for writing this is that I believe that the prevailing extreme pessimism about the capacity of government is one of the major obstacles we face to achieving progressive goals, and getting closer to actually solving the problems we’re told so much about.
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