What Happened to America’s Optimism?

Published: December 31, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
Read More

“There is something about too much prosperity that ruins the fiber of the people.”      – Diplomat Dwight Morrow

In 1933, the president awoke to the news that the United States banking system had collapsed. Unemployment had reached 25 percent. Hourly wages nose-dived 60 percent. Distraught dairy farmers blockaded highways in order to dump hundreds of gallons of milk in a vain effort to drive up milk prices.

“They say blockading the highway’s illegal,” said one Iowa farmer. “I say, ‘Seems to me there was a Tea Party in Boston that was illegal too.’”

2010 endured Tea Party rage, road rage, air rage, cell phone rage, even McNugget rage when a woman in Ohio attacked a worker at McDonald’s after being told that the chicken chunks were not on the breakfast menu.

During the 30s, our grandparents and great-grandparents suffered lost jobs, houses, farms, and incredible povertywithout the benefit of credit cards, bailouts and stimulus, and they managed to live through a Great Depression with grit and resolve.

Many of today’s citizenry however, have become a whiny group of rage-a-holics.

It took six long years for the gross national product to climb to 60 percent over the dark days of 1933. When Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4 of that year, the country was in a death grip of fear. People wanted their jobs back, their farms back. They just wanted their lives back.

“I’d like my life back,” said former CEO Tony Hayward regarding BP’s efforts to stop the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Little did Hayward realize that he was crystallizing exactly what many Americans felt. They just want their lives to return to the unrestrained prosperity of the 80s and 90s.

“As bad as it is today,” said Treasury official Neel Kashkari, “it could have been so much worse.” At the height of the financial crisis in 2008, Kashkari served under Secretary Hank Paulson and was given the unenviable task of delivering the bad news as well as a plan to fix it to President George W. Bush.

“If the financial system had collapsed,” Kashkari said in a New York Times interview, “businesses on Wall Street and Main Street alike “wouldn’t have been able to access funds to pay their employees, who then wouldn’t have money to pay their bills. It would have cascaded through our economy.”

2010 has taken a shellacking in poor judgment and bad behavior. CNN anchor Rick Sanchez calls comedian Jon Stewart a bigot, then digs the hole deeper by announcing thatall network heads are like Stewart. Blogging “journalist” Andrew Breitbart’s wildly misleading viral video takes Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod’s speech out of context and wrongly paints her as a bigot. Worse still, Ag. Secretary Tom Vilsack fires Sherrod before checking the facts.

Then there was Florida Pastor Terry Jones who advertisedBurn a Koran Day.  Thankfully, he was talked out of it but only after intervention by White House, Pentagon and Vatican officials. JetBlue attendant Steven Slater who, after an incredible lapse of bad behavior becomes, of all things, a hero for stressed-out employees.

WikiLeaks Founder and Firestarter Julian Assange became another kind of “hero” by dumping hundreds of thousands of classified documents on his website without any thought to who might be harmed. And Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was fined a mere $50,000 “for not cooperating” in an investigation looking into allegations of sending lewd photos to a young woman. Anyone else would have been fired.

Then there was… is that vuvuzela of populist rage known as (depending on where you live) Tea Party Nation, Express, Patriots, or The 1776 Tea Party, supported and/or co-opted by the likes of Sharron Angle, Michele Bachmann, Christine O’Donnell, Sarah Palin and my favorite demagogue of the year, Glenn Beck: “I haven’t seen Jesus and what he would do on a talk show on Fox, but I’m going to try,” (April 21).

Aren’t you glad you have cable?

I’m not suggesting that all of what the Tea Party has wrought has been bad for the country. They’ve effectively put Washington on notice: Shape up or we’ll ship you out!
However, during the past year, the country has been in a death grip of deep cynicism. On Christmas Eve no less, the political cartoon Pepper and Salt showed Santa on the couch with his analyst: “The question is not whether people believe in you,”the shrink tells the morose icon, “but rather, do you believe in yourself?”

Maybe what we need is a big dose of Tony Robbins. “Beliefs have the power to create and the power to destroy. Human beings have the awesome ability to take any experience of their lives and create a meaning that disempowers them or one that can literally save their lives.”

We know how to build, how to innovate, how to pull ourselves up and start over again.  Our grandparents did it in the face of a Great Depression. Our mothers and fathers did it during World War II. Sadly, many Boomers today lack the right stuff. We have become A.D.D. texting-FaceBookTwitter and medication addicted. We have Cialis for E.D., ergo we want, we expect the same with our economy, jobs, housing… you fill in the blank.

However, the reality is this: It took years for us to get into the current economic mess and it will take years to find our way out plus determination and a whole lot of hard choices.

“Even though I knew locating us would be like finding a needle in a haystack,” trapped Chilean miner Luis Urzua said, “I never lost hope that help would arrive.”

It took 17 days just to find them, and 53 more to finally rescue all 32 trapped miners.  What made the difference for the trapped men – faith and leadership.

“We made sure it was one for all and all for one down there,” Urzua said.

That’s the attitude more of us need to embrace if we’re ever going to pull ourselves up and start over.

One example comes in a message from vascular surgeon and Viet Nam vet John Baldwin. After checking in to see how he was doing after back surgery, he wrote back saying, “I’m just lovin’ being semi-pain free and alive in a beautiful world. I have found that divorcing myself from things I cannot control like Democrats, Republicans, TSA searches, deficits and murders of children, and just focusing on Jeannie [his wife and nurse extraordinaire], grandkids and my six-month old kitten has made me a fun person again. It took this illness and pain to appreciate the blue sky and my wife, more than ever!”

Results from a Gallup Student Poll taken last August in grades 5-12 found that “53 percent of students are hopeful, 63 percent are engaged and 70 percent are thriving.”

It’s that kind of hope and engagement that the rest of us need to embody.

“If we hope to re-establish our strength, confidence, and balance as a nation,” Mario Cuomo writes in Reason to Believe, “we need to help one another see that our self-interest is not identical with our selfish interests, that self-interest is inextricably linked to the common good. We need to understand that apart from the morality of recognizing an obligation to our brothers and sisters, common sense by itself should teach us that we are all in this thing together, interconnected and interdependent.”

Can I have an Amen?



  1. Author

    Jim, you seem to have a wonderful gift! (Loved your year-end essay!) Hope you continue to spread that gift to all in 2011!

  2. Author

    Really enjoyed your end-of-year essay! Could you hear my “Amen!”?

  3. Author

    I think people fail to realize that the genius of Ronald Reagan was not his policies – with which one can seriously differ – but that he made America believe in itself again. Sure much of it was hokey bs but after the dreary Jimmy Carter, it was just what the doctor ordered.

    You are right about Palin, Angle et al and especially the idiotic Beck. But the blowhards on the left are no better. Pelosi braying against the Debt Reduction Commission – which did courageous work – was a sad spectacle. I do hold out hope that President Obama, who is a bright man, will jettison his partisanship and be the leader he can. The tax compromise was a good start.

    What I hate about both the left and right in this country is their obdurate certainty. I find that the older I get, the less I know. How come they know everything – although their world views are so diametrically opposite? Could it be that both are equally wrong? I believe that if Americans of goodwill sit down together and work constructively at our problems – leaving dogma behind – that we can find answers that work for all of us.

    Yeats wrote: Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    In 2011, we all must recapture the center. The extremes are poison to us.

  4. Author

    Read it and nicely done. However, you could have reduced the entire column to this sentence: “People are the problem, always have been, always will be. Amen.”

  5. Author

    I truly enjoyed it. I think that everyone feels a sense of crisis in values, though we express in different ways. The Right sees a need for increased patriotism and increased fellowship in the Church. The Left sees a need for increased solidarity and focus on service. They are both searching for their solution to the same problem: we are too atomized, too self-involved and way too focused on the dollar.

    The dollar is a good carrot for good boys and girls, but it is not the best carrot – just the most ubiquitous. The best carrots are the love and respect of friends and family and the feeling of having earned a good night’s sleep. At least, that’s how I see it.

  6. Author

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you say in your essay. Well done!
    And here’s hoping we all find some of that optimism and hard work and its benefits in 2011.

  7. Author

    You have my “Amen!” A lovely piece. I so agree with how you feel about cynicism (and about Glenn Beck… and…. and…).

  8. Author

    Thanks for sending this and for all your important work throughout the year.

  9. Author

    Great year end review Jim. The last line is so good. In 2011, I pledge to supererogate more (meaning going beyond the required).
    Happy New Year!

  10. Author

    Just read it, great job as always! I really enjoyed the quote from [John Baldwin] — I just adore that guy!

  11. Author

    Another good one. Congrats, too, on your New York Times appearance last Sunday. You made ‘em squirm!
    I took on my military friends in a Washington Post op-ed today (ROTC Still Shouldn’t be on Campus). At least I thought they were my friends until I scanned through the 800-plus comments. Thanks for all your clearheaded pieces–
    Note: Colman McCarthy is a former columnist and frequent contributor to the Washington Post. I’ve included a link to his op-ed because it’s good.

Leave a Comment

Read More Articles
The Latest... And Sometimes Greatest