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May 21st, 2022

Insight

America's national mood disorder

Tyler Cowen

By Tyler Cowen Bloomberg View

Published Oct. 27, 2021

America is in a bad mood.

Granted, this is a subjective impression, but it is common, and there is no shortage of analyses of it, examining everything from social media to income inequality. I would like to try on for size the simplest possible explanation: If Americans are much more negative than they used to be, it is mostly about politics, and in recent decades political failure has become much more pervasive than it used it be.

The result is a kind of national mood disorder. I am not so naïve as to think politics will suddenly become less important in America anytime soon. But conditions can change quickly, and outside of politics the outlook is more positive.

If you ask why Americans might have become more negative about politics, there is a ready answer: It is the combined effects of 9/11, the failures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis and Great Recession, and the arrival of a major pandemic and 700,000 American deaths.

In all of these cases, the political class failed to respond adequately to crises. In contrast, the highly negative events preceding the 1980s, such as the high inflation of the late 1970s, were all addressed or even solved through politics.

A second question would be whether there is evidence to support the contention that Americans have become more negative overall. I am doubtful. Do fans of the Boston Red Sox hate the New York Yankees more than they used to? It's not obvious that the answer is yes. What about animosity between, say, Protestants and Catholics? That's probably a good deal weaker. There is almost certainly less homophobia, too, in addition to many other forms of prejudice. There are other indicators of progress; the surge in the number of Americans starting new businesses, for example, is hardly a sign of pessimism.

The negativity seems centered on our politics, our elites and the people who disagree with us politically. As political scientist Lee Drutman has written: "It's bad news for a democracy when 60 to 70 percent of people view fellow citizens of the other party as a serious threat." This phenomenon is much worse than in times past, and so our current negativity is more channeled and more focused.

I am struck by the comments section on the blog I run with Alex Tabarrok. We write mostly about economics, though other subjects often come up, such as technology, pop culture, my evil twin brother and, yes, politics. Our blog has been around for 18 years, and each year the commenters seem to become more scathing, not only about the blog's authors but also about each other.

The next issue to consider is whether this arrangement — for lack of a better term, call it political negativity — is stable, and if not how it might change.

The good news is that shifts in national moods come relatively frequently, and they are difficult to forecast. In the 1990s, for instance, few people forecast our current predicament of such an extreme polarized emotional opposition. Negative moods do not necessarily feed upon each other and become worse, as shown by the broader currents of history. Civilization has been around for thousands of years, and the U.S. for a few hundred years, in both cases with many ups and downs. If negative moods inevitably lead to nothing more than further collapse or destruction, it is hard to see how we would have come so far.

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It is even possible that national moods are characterized by mean-reversion — namely, that negative moods tend to turn more positive, and vice versa. That would imply we could look forward to better moods ahead. That is hardly gospel, but I haven't seen anyone with a better theory.

Nobody, including you and me, is consistently good at measuring the current national mood, never mind forecasting changes to it. That may sound a little scary, but it has ever been thus.

So, to sum up a few of the basic facts under this worldview: Americans are more negative and more oppositional in some important ways, especially around politics. This is not a good development. Yet — especially when you look beyond politics — the national mood is by no means entirely sour or hopeless. National moods also change frequently, and in unpredictable ways. There will be many positive developments in coming decades, most of all in biotechnology.

The negativity, in other words, is contained, and it could change swiftly and without notice. I don't know about you, but I find this outlook liberating — or even, dare I say, a reason for some modest optimism.

(COMMENT, BELOW)

Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream."

Previously:
06/10/21 Lifting of mask mandates poses a challenge for Libertarians
05/28/21 Why economics is failing us
04/19/21We need green energy. We don't need green jobs
04/14/21 Libertarianism isn't dead. It's just reinventing itself
04/05/21 What does the world need? More humans
02/10/21 If Biden goes big now, he may have to go small later
01/12/21 Covid improved how the world does science
12/07/20 How to make sure your complaint is heard
10/27/20 It's getting better and worse at the same time
09/14/20 How to be happy during a pandemic
09/04/20 Trump is winning the vaccine debate with public health experts
07/01/20 Why Americans are having an emotional reaction to masks
05/20/20 Covid-19 will expose the ghosts in the U.S. economy
05/07/20 Are aliens visiting us? US military seems to think so
05/06/20 America's reopening will depend on one thing --- trust
04/22/20 How the covid-19 recession is like World War II
04/15/20 America is returning to 1781
04/08/20 Covid-19 is is upending everything for status seekers
03/17/20 The coronavirus will usher in a new era of entertainment
01/28/20 Social Security isn't doomed for younger generations
01/08/20 Why 2020 is harder to predict than 2019 was
12/02/19 Equality is a mediocre goal so aim for progress
11/25/19 Inflation inequality creates winners and losers
11/09/19 OK kids. This boomer has had enough
10/20/19 Would you bet against Trump in 2020?
09/25/19 The right industrial policy for America
09/24/19 Harvard's legacies are nothing to be proud of
09/02/19 Yes, the Fed could still stop a recession
08/20/19 A trade deal with China wouldn't change much
07/29/19 How your personality traits affect your paycheck
07/16/19 Internet 101 should be a required class
05/28/19 How Dems actually are the ANTI-immigrant party
04/23/19 Want to help fight climate change? Have more children
03/22/19 America isn't as divided as it looks
03/12/19 The Twitter takeover of politics: You ain't seen nothing yet
03/04/19 How to tell which Dem dreams won't come true
02/07/19: Now the Dems want to end America's nuclear first strike option. How clueless is that?
01/29/19: The shutdown hit a lot of government workers --- hard. But, ultimately, who is responsible for their unfortunate circumstances?
12/12/18: The West is abusing its legal power to punish people or institutions that do things it doesn't like. It better stop
10/23/18: The US needs Saudi Arabia, and vice versa
10/19/18: The right finds the perfect weapon against the left
07/24/18: The drive for the perfect child gets a little scary
06/04/18: Side effects of the decline of men in labor market
05/14/18: Proving Marx's theories right
05/08/18: Holding up a mirror to intellectuals of the left
05/01/18: Virtual reality will make lives better ... mostly
04/16/18: It's hard to burst your political filter bubbleIt's hard to burst your political filter bubble
04/09/18: The missing key to grasping why American politics seems to have become more polarized, with no apparent end in sight
04/05/18: Two American power centers are about to clash
03/22/18: We fear what we can't control about Uber and Facebook
03/08/18: How to stop the licen$ing insanity
01/10/18: Polarized Congress needs to bring back earmarks
12/27/17: The year when the Internet collides with reality
11/07/17: Would you blame the phone for Russian interference?
10/23/17: North Korea is playing a longer game than the US
10/12/17: Why conservatives should celebrate Thaler's Nobel
08/02/17: Too many of today's innovations are focused on solving problems rather than creating something new

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