The United States of Optimism

Over the past year, people have become more and more satisfied with where the country is going.

Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty

Today is Election Day, and it’s hard to believe that anyone feels cheerful about it. Relieved? Maybe. But positive? Democrats are riven with anxiety about whether they can win back the House. Republicans are riven with anxiety about whether they can hold it. President Donald Trump has chosen a closing argument for the campaign that’s rooted in racist fearmongering and lies. The nation is still reeling from the massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and the mail bombs sent to prominent Democrats.

As Sarah Lyall succinctly put it in The New York Times, “It’s been an awful few days.” And before that, it was an awful few weeks and months. Even those moments that have accrued partisan advantage to one side or the other—the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, for example—seem to have only increased anger on both sides. The election’s results are unlikely to soothe any of that.

Yet a funny phenomenon exists in public-opinion polling. Pollsters like to ask whether the country is on the right track or the wrong track—a good way to take the temperature of the nation, regardless of one’s stance on specific issues. And despite the gloomy spate of news, several recent polls show a small but real and consistent improvement in the national mood, with slightly more Americans saying that the country is on the right track and fewer saying that it’s on the wrong one. Here, for example, is The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, with the most recent results coming from the start of November:

CBS News surveys show a similar trend, with a darkening mood through 2017 in the months after the presidential election, followed by a slowly improving feeling in 2018:

Gallup uses slightly different terms to gauge voter sentiment, but finds the same results: Over the course of 2018, people have become more and more satisfied with where the country is going.

The CNN/ORC poll offers a somewhat more complicated picture, because it asks the question with more options. It suggests a more polarized populace overall: More people are saying that the country is doing very badly or very well, while fewer are saying that it is doing fairly well or pretty badly, though the general arc echoes those of the other polls.

Even with the recent rises, the numbers are miserable: Not even four in 10 Americans think that the country is on the right track. The numbers have been in the cellar for years, too. In the late 1990s, they sometimes reached into the 70s. A sharp, if short-lived and counterintuitive, peak also occurred after the September 11 attacks, which seemed to reflect the surge in patriotic feeling more than a sense that all was well. It’s hardly encouraging that an increase to nearly 40 percent is positive growth. But it is growth nonetheless.

So whence does this occluded optimism originate? Since politics is an unlikely motivator of rosier feelings, one possibility is that the economy is steadily growing, which tends to improve the national mood. What’s strange is that the strong economy and the increasing optimism don’t seem to be coupled with more positive feelings about the president. The resident of the White House tends to reap the benefit of positive feeling, and especially of a growing economy. But Gallup’s latest weekly tracking poll shows Trump’s job approval shifting five points in either direction—higher disapproval and lower approval.

The aftermath of the midterms is unlikely to produce a moment of goodwill in politics. If Republicans hold both houses of Congress, something like the status quo will prevail; if Democrats capture one, it could create even more acrimony on Capitol Hill. What will that do to Americans’ perception of whether the country is on the right track? As 2017 shows, that’s not an easy thing to predict.