America is pessimistic but shouldn’t be

Do you think America is the greatest nation on Earth?

Do you think America’s best days are ahead?

If surveyors from the Pew Research Center had bothered to ask me these questions as part of their broader look at the nation’s collective psyche last month, I know how I’d have answered:

Yes and yes.

For a guy that was raised in the way that I was — in a home where we believed beyond all doubt that America was exceptional, in schools where we were taught to revere the sacrifices that cemented that exceptionality, at a time and place in America when the bumpy road was behind and it was “morning” again — the Pew questions are a slam dunk.

If I had been asked, my fuller response to Pew would have been something like:

Yes, America is the greatest nation on Earth, but our challenges — debt, divided politics and delinquent economic growth — threaten that rarified status. In other words, we’ve got some work to do, but I still prefer my country to all the others by a long shot. 

And yes, America’s best days are ahead, but not unless we get a grip on a few matters (see above).  While work lies ahead, I fundamentally believe in America and Americans. Disagreeing as I may with the current direction of things, I still believe we’ll find a way to get better from here.

That’s why I was more than a lot surprised by the findings of the Pew poll. 

News flash: Apparently everyone wasn’t raised like I was. 

When asked if America is the greatest nation on Earth, a dismal 28 percent of Americans agreed — or in the exact phraseology of the Pew poll, about a quarter of Americans think that the USA “stands above all others.”

OK, sidebar here: For the three in four Americans who don’t think America is all that much better than the rest of the world, let me ask you a question: What in the name Jezebel’s jewelery is your malfunction? What country is better than we are? Seriously, write a letter to the editor and tell me. Which country gets the bulge on the “Stars and Stripes”?

China? Sure, if you like 70-hour work weeks and religious persecution. 

Brazil? Maybe, if you like soccer enough to live in shanty towns.

France? If 90-percent marginal income tax rates suits your pinky-ring-wearing prerogatives.

Great Britain? If you like the Spice Girls (and taking a number when your appendix explodes).

Russia? If you like chesty despots and an economy controlled by oligarchs.

Pew’s findings are more interesting the deeper you dig — 11 percent of “solid liberals” and a surprisingly scant 46 percent of “steadfast conservatives” think America is the undisputed Number One.

The results are just as glum on the second question, the matter of whether America’s best days ahead. Of those surveyed, 49 percent said America’s best days are behind us, with just 44 percent saying they are yet to come.

Be careful when you walk below a tall building, because if Pew’s numbers are any indication, a goodly number of our fellow Americans might soon be jumping off.

Whereas liberals are the ogres on the question “are we the best,” here it is right-wing America that dons the cloak of shrinking pessimist. America’s best days are in the rearview mirror, according to 76 percent of steadfast conservatives, whereas a sunny 70 percent of liberals says it gets better from here.

When laid side by side, neither the left or the right comes out looking particularly good in the Pew survey.

Conservatives are proud but pessimistic. Their refrain: We’re awesome, but the party is just about over, bro.

Liberals think we’re a so-so republic but on the upswing.  The extrapolated liberal refrain: Being mediocre isn’t so bad, because things are getting better. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll be like France. I think the poll shows that both sides of the spectrum need an attitude adjustment. 

Do conservatives dislike the president so much that they have totally sworn off the optimism that President Ronald Reagan made a staple of our movement?

Were liberals so soured by President George W. Bush’s “on the sleeve” patriotism that they can’t see America for the good and great place that FDR, LBJ and JFK knew it to be?

If you believe the Pew poll, the answer to both questions is, disappointingly, apparently. 

As I said, it seems as if both sides need to check their attitudes. If your answer to either of the Pew questions was “no,” please take the occasion of our 238th birthday to reconsider. 

To those of you who (rightly) think America is and will continue to be the great hope for the world, I bid you a happy Fourth of July. 

Josh Penry is a former minority leader in the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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