The electorate is in a sour mood. Americans are pessimistic about the nation’s future. They have little trust in their institutions. Their confidence in the economy is waning. Their attitudes toward their own finances are at decade lows. The president’s job-approval rating is underwater; his opponent’s favorable ratings are too. Thirty percent of Americans say that neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump would make a good president. According to the Real Clear Politics polling average, some two-thirds of Americans say the country is on the wrong track.

President Biden and his allies have difficulty explaining these numbers. They point to the strong job market, GDP growth, and Dow 40,000. They note that the American economy has outperformed other nations in the years since the Covid-19 pandemic. They dismiss criticism as “vibes,” shift blame to corporations, and accuse opponents of acting in bad faith. They become angry when Biden doesn’t get credit. “Name me a president that’s gotten as much done as I’ve gotten done in my first three and a half years,” Biden huffed during an interview with Time in May.

He’s applying the wrong standard. Lots of presidents have signed bills into law. But only one full-term president in the past half-century has presided over an increase in consumer prices that matches inflation under Biden. That president was Jimmy Carter, who lost reelection. Indeed, at this point in the campaign cycle, Biden has the worst right-track / wrong-track numbers of any Democratic incumbent president since Carter. The simplest explanation for America’s crisis of self-confidence may be the decline in living standards under Biden.

What inflation does not explain is the duration of American gloom. After all, the national dyspepsia preceded the return of inflation in 2021 by many years. Recently I came across a slide depicting right-track / wrong-track numbers since 1989. Not since 2004 have most Americans said that the country is on the right track. An entire generation has come of age since we last felt good about ourselves and about where we were headed.

The question is why. There is no single answer, of course. But here are a few theories that may bring us closer to understanding America’s dark night of the soul:

EVENTS. The right-track numbers started falling after it became known that Saddam Hussein did not have the weapons of mass destruction that were the stated reason for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The numbers plunged with the onset of the Great Recession and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. They slowly crawled back uphill during the subsequent lengthy and lackluster economic recovery.

That recovery was in its infancy when a once-in-a-century pandemic unraveled the global economy and tore the American social fabric apart. Given this record, you can begin to understand why Americans might say that the country is headed in the wrong direction. What my AEI colleague Nicholas Eberstadt dubbed “Our Miserable 21st Century” in a groundbreaking 2017 article in COMMENTARY has been an era of war, economic loss, addiction, dizzying technological and cultural change, plague, and disorder.

Unfortunate events are behind the chaotic political scene. “Change wins out,” political analyst Charlie Cook once wrote, “when a majority of voters are not happy.” Prolonged frustration reveals itself in narrow and temporary majorities. There have been nine biannual elections since most voters began saying the country is on the wrong track. All but one of them resulted in a change of partisan control in either Congress or the White House or both.

The exception was the status-quo election of 2012, where neither chamber of Congress nor the White House changed hands. According to Real Clear Politics, the spread between the right-track and wrong-tack numbers was -13 points on Election Day 2012. As I write in early June 2024, the spread is -41 points.

LEADERS. No president since Bill Clinton has left office with an average approval rating above 50 percent. The last election where both presidential candidates enjoyed positive favorable ratings was 2008. And the sense of disapproval extends to Congress. Senate leaders of both parties are despised. There have been six speakers of the House since 2004. Five of them have been Republicans, including one who later served a stint in prison for child molestation.

America could use some better-quality politicians, in other words. Though there are many capable men and women serving in elected and appointed office—from Senators Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and John Fetterman (D., Penn.) to Congressmen Mike McCaul (R., Texas) and Jared Golden (D., Maine)—they have not found their way to the highest levels of power. All four of this century’s presidents pledged to unite the country. They failed.

STORIES. Consider how Americans have talked about their country since the beginning of the 2000s. It has been one long and woeful dirge. In response to the 9/11 attacks, Newsweek famously asked, “Why do they hate us?” As if we had brought the slaughter on ourselves.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were said to be hopeless causes based on lies. The Global Financial Crisis was called an indictment of Western democratic capitalism. Climate change has been portrayed as a looming apocalypse for which industrialism and consumerism are to blame.

Since the killing of the black teenager Trayvon Martin by “white Hispanic” George Zimmerman in 2012, not a day goes by without someone making the defamatory accusation that America is a systemically racist society. Media, education, and entertainment promote the corrosive ideas of intersectionality and decolonization, delegitimizing not only the Jewish State of Israel but also the United States as a merit-based, constitutional republic.

Worse still, in recent years the cultural arbiters of the New Right have put forward their own dystopian vision of America. In this vision, “real” Americans live in a society where the population is morally corrupt and where the “Deep State” uses surveillance technology to squash dissent. When Americans are asked to choose between a story of their country as a “settler colonialist” oppressor of minorities and a story of post-constitutional progressive tyranny, is it any wonder that most people worry about the future?

Matthew Kaminski, editor in chief of Politico, says the problem is the shift in authority from the Beltway to Silicon Valley. What happened in Washington used to change the world; now what happens in the tech industry, primarily based in California, matters more. America still moves the earth, but through Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin, not Biden and Trump and Mike Johnson and Nancy Pelosi. Our politics is small and embittered, so voters are too. That is another way—along with mass immigration and income inequality—that our time resembles the first Gilded Age. “We have little faith in our ourselves,” writes Kaminski. “Why would anyone else?”

Recovering our confidence and sense of purpose, then, requires leaders who will speak for America, remind us of our glories more than our shame, and reinforce the nation’s promise by building on what’s best in our country: our Constitution, our talent, our individuality, and our freedom. America needs political, cultural, and business leaders who understand, and who can explain, why so many people want to come here. Who talk America up, not down. Who will lift our spirits. And get us back on track.

Photo: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

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