Is America too Optimistic for Revolt?

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Labor-Community Coalition activists, holding a cutout of JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, march on Wall Street in New York City on March 12, 2011. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP-Getty Images

To understand American anger, that roiling storm sometimes dubbed our national “mood,” spend a day with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. Since 2006 the unlikely lawman—a tea drinker who listens to Bobby Kennedy speeches on his way to work—has overseen all foreclosures and evictions in the Chicago area, one of the hardest hit nationwide. The process does not always go well. One evictee shot himself in the head, remained conscious, and calmly tried to raise the pistol again as deputies battered the front door. But it’s often mundane details that disturb Dart the most.

“Look at this,” he said during a recent eviction on Chicago’s blighted South Side. He pointed to a little boy’s picture on a refrigerator. “It makes you say to yourself, why the fuck does it have to be this way?” Americans are asking the same thing.

Through wars and recessions, America has remained its unaccountably cheerful self. National happiness peaked during the 1970s, baffling those who assumed Vietnam, Watergate, gas-station lines, and inflation would dampen the joy. Even today more than 80 percent of the population rates itself “happy” or “pretty happy,” according to the Pew Research Center, and that figure has held through the downturn.

But reality is beginning to break through. Gas and grocery prices are on the rise, home values are down, and vast majorities think the country is on the wrong track. The result is sadness and frustration, but also an inchoate rage more profound than the sign-waving political fury documented during the elections last fall. Two thirds of Americans even harbor anger toward God, according to a recent study by Julie Exline, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University.

In search of the earthly toll of this outrage, NEWSWEEK conducted a poll of 600 people, finding vastly more unquiet minds than not. Three out of four people believe the economy is stagnant or getting worse. One in three is uneasy about getting married, starting a family, or being able to buy a home. Most say their relationships have been damaged by economic woes or, perhaps more accurately, the dread and nervousness that accompany them.

Could these emotions escalate into revolt? Corporate earnings have soared to an all-time high. Wall Street is gaudy and confident again. But the heyday hasn’t come for millions of Americans. Unemployment hovers near 9 percent, and the only jobs that truly abound, according to Labor Department data, come with name tags, hairnets, and funny hats (rather than high wages, great benefits, and long-term security). The American Dream is about having the means to build a better life for the next generation. But as President Obama acknowledged at a town-hall meeting in May, “a lot of folks aren’t feeling that [possibility] anymore.”

At worst, the result could be the Days of Rage already seen overseas. In Spain last week protesters clashed with police, a violent demonstration against economic woes and austerity measures—much like those under review in Washington. Earlier this year riots swept the Arab world, exploding out of a volatile mix of high unemployment and large numbers of educated, ambitious people who feel their dreams have been denied—something with which an alarming number of Americans can identify. Nearly one in five men between 25 and 54 is without a job right now—a bulge of disaffected wall-leaners that New York Times columnist David Brooks worries could have a “corrosive cultural influence.”

It’s possible to imagine the anger harbored by these men rising with the summer heat—even if the official recovery continues. “Ironically, revolutions happen at times when things are getting better,” says Florida State University historian Darrin McMahon, the author of Happiness: A History. The 18th century, for example, was “the great age of happiness [but] also a time of great dissatisfaction. People realized that they could have more control over their lives, more religious freedom, less injustice. If you want to make a parallel to the present day, there you have it.” Sparks have already flown. This winter thousands of protesters commandeered the capital building in Wisconsin in revolt against attempted curbs on union power.

Underlying dissatisfaction is, of course, heightened expectations. Before the French and American revolutions, life was synonymous with pain, politics with subservience, and procreation with a fleeting embrace between scratchy sheets. We’ve since developed grander ideas about what we deserve, which is why Americans are, as The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert recently wrote, “a nation of unhappy lottery winners,” having it all but still burning for more.

Expectation is also the country’s saving grace. In both a public and private sense, people have always raged against the gap between their ideal lives and their reality. But Americans, perhaps more than residents of any other developed nation, not only look to the future but assume it will be bright. “Americans keep a second set of books,” says Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin, an expert on social movements. One is a record of life as it really is; the other is “how it will be once I get past this little bump.”

There are countless possible reasons for such incurable optimism. America is a nation of immigrants, for one, of people who set foot on a boat or a plane in the belief that a better life existed elsewhere. Once they get here, Gitlin believes that conviction shapes the culture—and through it the sensibilities of people like Tom Dart.

In recent years, Dart has been like a warm blanket and a cup of tea to many of his 5 million constituents, no matter their status. He’s fought the ghoulish practice of burying poor people in coffins stuffed with other human remains. And in his role as the Windy City’s eviction czar, he has decreed not to boot people if it’s raining or freezing. If they have to go, a social worker is available to help them through the trauma.

Political pragmatism undoubtedly plays a role in tempering Dart’s own anger. But so does America’s incorrigible aversion to playing the cynic.

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