Hmmm, Where Have We Seen This Before?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
From NPR’s Morning Edition today.

The pull-quote at the beginning of my current cover story says:

Many people are discouraged about America. But the closer they are to the action at home, the better they like what they see.

This sounds like the old political saw that people hate the Congress but feel better about their own Representative. But it’s different in a significant way.

The hate-the-Congress / like-the- Congressman paradox is based on the tension between locally connected politicians, who by definition know how to make themselves likable to their own constituency, and the Congress as a whole, which everyone can see is polarized and hamstrung. You don’t have to wait to be told that national government is stalemated. You know that it is, because of the nonstop news of shutdowns and faceoffs.

But the NPR / Robert Wood Johnson / Harvard study that is the basis of today’s report  parallels what my wife Deb and I have reported about economic, educational, cultural, and social trends across the country. Namely, that people feel more positive about the part of America they directly experience than the other part they hear referred to in political discourse in the news.

“Feel more positive” doesn’t mean “think there are no problems.” The health system, the school system, and every other system is under severe strain. But more people feel more positively about more aspects of the current U.S. scene that you would infer from most coverage, or from virtually any political discourse. Recognizing this point matters not for generating complacency but rather for grasping the possibility of progress. As my current piece says in its conclusion:

When the national mood after the first Gilded Age favored reform, possibilities that had been tested, refined, and made to work in various “laboratories of democracy” were at hand. After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital. But their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they would ever imagine. Until the country’s mood does change, the people who have been reweaving the national fabric will be more effective if they realize how many other people are working toward the same end.

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A very interesting graph from the NPR report, showing how views of each person’s own health-care experience vary with income:

Alyson Hurt / NPR