Optimism's Blowback

David Brooks addresses the seeming paradox of Americans who are content in their own lives and deeply anxious about the state of the nation, a subject that we have talked about here before. There are two aspects to this. First of all, there is a large minority of Americans who are still not content in their own lives, and these form the core of support for any populist policies. Those populist policies become truly electorally viable when you have widespread malaise about the “direction” of the country.

The populism has to be relatively modest, but has to address systemic problems that the public finds deeply unacceptable. Indeed, the general level of satisfaction that the majority enjoys may unexpectedly feed into deep frustration and impatience with government failures: the more personal contentment, the higher one’s expectations rise about satisfaction in all areas, and there is nothing more potentially explosive than rising expectations that are dashed by “underperforming” government. As the disparity between personal satisfaction and anxiety about national problems grows, the more inexplicable government’s inability to address those problems becomes in the eyes of many of the otherwise satisfied voters. The so-called “happy” people thus become a driving force behind the public’s disgust with the status quo.

Economic populism becomes rhetorically and psychologically attractive to many voters who might have rejected it only a few years ago, because it taps into attitudes of resentment and disappointment that have been engendered by the excessively optimistic promises of advocates of alternative policies. Cheerleaders for globalisation and international neoliberalism, for instance, have overreached in minimising the costs of their preferred policies, and have created immense distrust as a result. The reaction against these typically overly optimistic claims has been exacerbated by pie-in-the-sky promises of efficacious government action overseas, and the breakdown in competent execution of tasks that have become routine responsibilities of the federal government.

There is also a treacherous trap for a certain presidential candidate to be found in this so-called “happiness gap”:

If one were to advise a candidate about the happiness gap, you’d say: first, don’t try to be inspiring or rely on the pure power of authenticity. In these cynical days, voters are not interested in uplift.