I arrived in the United States in 1996 as a foreign correspondent for the Economist. Like many young journalists from Europe, I was instantly won over by the country’s infectious optimism. By most objective measures, the United States was as unequal, class-bound and divided as my own Britain; but it differed fundamentally in its outlook.
For some strange reason, nearly all Americans perceived themselves as “middle class.” They believed, without asking for evidence, that things were improving - or that if they weren’t, they would. It was as though the entire nation had been subjected to a particularly uplifting course of cognitive behavioral therapy. Smother feelings of resentment. Will yourself to be upbeat.
Two decades later, Americans are in danger of succumbing to the opposite mentality. The sunny affability of Ronald Reagan has been displaced by Donald Trump’s dystopian rants about the United States “losing”; the nation’s real challenges are blown out of all proportion by a toxic public discourse that accentuates the negative. Suddenly, privileged, cosmopolitan Americans are obsessed with how much they are resented by their compatriots. A supposedly classless society is seized by its internal divisions.
Up to a point, the new mood is bracing. It is past time that Americans confront the long stagnation of middle-class incomes stretching back to the 1970s; it is vital to reckon with the research of Nicholas Eberstadt, whose forthcoming book documents the travails of the 7 million prime-age men who have dropped out of the workforce. But it is also essential to resist a willful pessimism that can infect the culture. Americans should not want to become like Britons, who agonized that class was destiny even when their prime minister was John Major, who quit school at 16.
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If Trump and his ilk want to make America great again, they should not talk it down. They should not paint immigration as a mortal threat to the nation - not when the country was built by migrants, not when every study shows that their presence is a boon to the economy and not when the alleged flood of Mexicans is a fiction. Between 2009 and 2014, fewer Mexicans migrated to the United States than returned in the opposite direction. Trump has incited fury about a problem that does not exist.
Equally, Trump and his backers should not rant that trade is destroying livelihoods - not when imports as a share of the U.S. economy have been roughly flat over the past decade, and not when the nation’s trade deficit with other countries has been halved as a share of its economy. The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership with East Asia, denounced not just by Trump but also by Hillary Clinton, would boost U.S. national income by an estimated $77 billion annually. Even if there are fair questions about who wins and who loses from trade deals, there is absolutely no excuse for painting the TPP as a plot to harm the average citizen.
Or consider the core grounds for populist resentment: the stagnation of middle-class incomes. Since a peak in the late 1990s, the median U.S. household has experienced no income gain whatsoever: There is a real issue here. But the Census Bureau just reported that last year brought good news: The median household income was up 5.2 percent, the largest one-year jump on record. The gains were highest in percentage terms among poorer households. The number of people living in poverty fell 8 percent.
In the 1990s, this progress would have been celebrated wholeheartedly. The national mood embodied by the youthful President Bill Clinton was bubbly and positive - as was the mood embodied by his political nemesis, Newt Gingrich, another Southern baby boomer. Clinton understood the pain of New England’s hard-pressed textile workers, but he believed he had solutions: He embraced technology, trade and the opportunities of globalization; he used U.S. power to bring the war in the Balkans to a peaceful end. Today, Trump disparages the nation and scorns international engagement. For her part, Hillary Clinton struggles to find the words to challenge him.
So here is an appeal to Trump and Clinton: Do not talk the United States into a self-feeding depression. Part of the solution to the nation’s challenges is to be found in better policies; the government should do more for those who live paycheck to paycheck. But only part of the solution is to be found there, for the truth is that government has already done more than it gets credit for, and yet the national malaise continues. In the past several years, tax tweaks have helped low-income workers, and Obamacare has extended health coverage to millions; given the gridlock that possesses Washington, it is unlikely that the next few years will see greater advances for hard-pressed families.
And so it is time to ask the question: If Americans can’t fix all their problems, can they at least rediscover their old talent for living cheerfully with them?
Mallaby is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.