Is American optimism fading? 48% of midterm voters say next generation will be worse off

The number was 39% only four years ago

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The most depressing number to come out of the midterm elections is 48 percent.

That is the percentage of voters in the exit polling that said they expect life for the next generation of Americans to be worse than it is today.

Another 27 percent think life will be just about the same. A scant 22 percent believe the next generation will have it better.

This is discouraging no matter what your flavor of politics is.

This pessimism is not just residue of a worrisome economy.

The same question was asked in the 2010 election, when the economy was in far worse shape and when voters were more worried.  The percentage of voters who thought the next generation would be worse off was 39 percent and 32 percent thought they’d have it better.  That’s a big change – in the wrong direction.

There were some other disturbing and hard-to-explain findings in the poll.

More voters this year than in 2008 think the country is on the wrong track, a full 65 percent.

Sixty-three percent said the economic system favors the wealthy.

Maybe that isn’t a surprise but this is: 38 percent think that race relations have gotten worse in the past few years and only 20 percent feel they have gotten better.  This probably has something to do with feelings toward President Barack Obama; 62 percent of those think race relations are getting worse voted Republican. But I suspect this also reflects a deeper sense that society is become more fractured and territorial.

The voters also expressed contempt for government, its leaders and political parties. A robust 79 percent think government rarely does the right thing. Do you approve of how Congress is doing its job?  Nope, said 78 percent.

This doesn’t mean that dysfunction in our tone-deaf political system is an important reason why we are pessimistic about the next generations.  Politics doesn’t play that kind of role in how people think about the future. 

Politics as it is currently practiced preys on our anxieties instead of addressing them.  Obnoxious partisanship exaggerates our sense that America has become more “us vs. them,” more red/blue, black/white, rich/poor, city/country, religious/secular, high tech/low tech.

The gridlock and universally perceived lack of leadership in government adds to our sense that the tangible problems we worry about are unsolvable: the long stagnant economy, the effects of globalization, immigration, poor public education, climate change, health care and whatever you care to add to the list.  As the world has gotten more wired, more filled with instant media, connectedness, data, news, information and brain clutter, social anxiety seems to have increased.

It may be corny, but having faith that our kids will have it better is an iconic bit of American optimism, one that inspires hard work, savings, sacrifice and setting a good example.

It is sad to see that diminish. Hopefully, it is a passing illness, not a lingering disease. And hopefully, the winners of the elections will pay attention to this result as well as the vote count.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Spare us from endless campaigns]

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