In a Gallup poll released last week, 85 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with how things were going in their personal life. That’s close to an all-time high:
At the same time, only 20 percent are satisfied with how things are going in the United States. That’s not an all-time low, but it’s in the ballpark:
By historical standards, a 6-point increase in personal satisfaction over the course of a single year is pretty huge. If you look at the past three decades, it represents two-thirds of the range from all-time low to all-time high.
But that hasn’t translated into any change in satisfaction with how things are going for the country. A corresponding increase would be something like 40 percentage points. In reality, satisfaction went down in 2015 by about ten points.
There is a story to be written about this massive disconnect. Normally, satisfaction with the country goes up as we recover from recessions. And we have recovered. Employment is up. Inflation is low. Gas prices have dropped. Taxes haven’t changed for anyone even close to middle class. Broadly speaking, things are going pretty well.
The usual response at this point is to say that despite all this, wages are stagnant. And that’s true. But wages have been pretty stagnant for a long time. What’s more, over the past year we’ve actually started to see them rise a bit. Not a lot, but some.
So what’s the deal? Satisfaction with the country started to show normal signs of increase in 2009, but then it suddenly collapsed—and it’s stayed low ever since. Why? Has satisfaction with the country become unmoored from economic conditions? Is it all about other hot buttons these days? Are conservatives unhappy because gays are getting married while liberals are unhappy because income inequality is increasing? Have we all somehow conspired to be massively dissatisfied with the state of the country because our side continues to fail to get everything we want? Or what?
We don’t live in nirvana. We never have. But by most standards, things are going pretty well. For liberals, we have gay marriage, Obamacare, and better Wall Street regulation. For conservatives, we have Citizens United, continued low taxes, and total control of Congress. For everyone, crime is down, school test scores are up, and terrorists continue to kill virtually no one here in America.
I honestly don’t get it. America isn’t a utopia, and America isn’t a dystopia. It’s recovering pretty decently from a huge recession and personal satisfaction with life is high. On other fronts, lots of things are going well and a few aren’t. Same as always.
So why all the anger? Can it really be laid at the feet of the media? What’s going on?