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The Doubting American

AMERICANS have been bombarded in recent years with accounts of their nation's decline. The most persistent of these involves the supposed withering of United States economic prowess, especially before the challenge from Behemoth Japan.

Despite massive expenditures on them, our schools, we are told, are failing to educate students properly. Instead of accepting individual responsibility, we are developing the mentality of "a nation of victims." Families are falling apart. The US is described as polarized racially and as increasingly fractured between haves and have-nots.

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Americans have long been anxious about the status of things that are important to them. When the Roper Organization asked in the fall of 1948 whether "you expect the next few years are going to bring better times, worse times, or do you think we'll go along about as we are now?," nearly twice as many respondents said "worse" as said "better." In July 1963, before President Kennedy's assassination and when Camelot supposedly still reigned, just 34 percent of those polled by Gallup pronounced themselves "s atisfied...with the honesty and standards of behavior of people in the country today," while 59 percent said they were dissatisfied.

This seems natural enough. There's probably always been an element of nostalgia in the American soul. What's more, some things - including important things - are always going wrong "today," and these are the things, not yesterday's problems, that we have to worry about.

Many leaders in the US's founding generation believed in the idea of "American exceptionalism" - that the country had a unique place and promise, conferred by God and/or a special historical record. "What if we fail to achieve the promise?" many of the founders, including Washington and Adams, asked. John Quincy Adams, in his famous Jubilee Address of April 30, 1839, on the 50th anniversary of Washington's inauguration, expressed deep pessimism about the country's future. As the younger Adams saw it, the

nation's response to slavery and sectionalism struck at the core of the promise. Similarly, Lincoln saw the half century leading up to the Civil War as a time when the nation betrayed its creed. In different forms, this anxiety can be seen recurring to our own day. A burst of negative views

These caveats noted, available data do seem to suggest an extraordinary burst of negative sentiments in the contemporary public. Assessments of the national economy are a case in point. Every week since late 1985, ABC News and Money magazine asked national samples a series of economic questions, including: "Would you describe the state of the nation's economy these days as excellent, good, not so good, or poor?" Subtracting the two negative assessments (not so good and poor) from the two positive ones, w e get a score that in theory can run from +100 - everyone finding the economy in good shape - to -100.

The weekly scores follow actual economic performance only very roughly. Scores were, for example, far lower during the 1991 recession than during the much stronger economy of 1988. But economic assessments averaged considerably lower during 1992, when the economy was actually strengthening, than during 1991, when it reached its recession low.

What's striking is that in the 377 askings of this question, from December 1985 through June 1993, there isn't a single instance when more people called the economy good to excellent, than labeled it not-so-good to poor. On one occasion, in April 1986, 50 percent of the responses were positive.

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The experience with this particular question isn't unusual. We typically find much more optimistic judgments when people are asked to assess performance in areas where they have personal knowledge or contact. People are persistently more pessimistic when they judge things they can know about only through external accounts.

This pattern appears regularly in other Western democracies. In Japan, surveys done by Chuo Chosa-sha for Jiji Press on an ongoing basis since 1981 have found professed dissatisfaction with the national economy similar to what we've seen here in the US. In 143 askings since 1981 for a judgment on "general economic conditions" in Japan, more respondents have come down on the "getting worse" side than on "getting better" all but 21 times.

In their thinking about America, many citizens these days evince considerable concern and dissatisfaction. Yet a large structure of national self-images, expectations, norms, and values remains in place, largely undisturbed. A demanding individualism

A distinctive American ideology persists today, on much the same lines as it first took shape in the 18th century. The key element, now as then, is a notably far-reaching, pervasive, demanding individualism.

Surveys done in the US and many European countries since the mid 1980s by the International Social Survey Project (ISSP), and the big round of polling done cross-nationally in 1990 and 1991 by Princeton Survey Research Associates for the Times Mirror Company, are especially useful in permitting us to locate contemporary American social and political values in a comparative context.

The 1992 module of the ongoing ISSP project shows how strong and distinctive America's individualistic commitments still are. Asked, for example, to assess the relative importance for getting ahead in life of various conditions and characteristics, Americans gave clear primacy to three: one's own ambition, one's own hard work, and one's own education. Thus, the US public, across group lines, continues to affirm its belief in the ideal of a meritocratic society, and its judgment that for its shortcomings this country approaches the meritocratic ideal.

Similarly, Americans remain far more inclined than their counterparts in many other advanced industrial democracies to emphasize individual responsibility over governmental action in diverse areas, from social welfare programs to income distribution.

American individualism has deep roots in religious belief - the equal worth of each person before God - and surveys show the US continuing to stand out among post-industrial societies in the strength of religious commitments. Data indicate, further, that Americans still see their country in exceptionalist terms, back strongly the ideal of "one people" united by shared ideals, and are extraordinarily conservative or preservatist about the symbols and rituals that express their nationality.

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