The ‘Wrong Track’ Numbers That Are Beyond Politics

by David French

Writing this morning in the Washington Post, James Hohmann explores why a solid majority of Americans still believe America is on the “wrong track” in spite of a spate of positive economic news — including the biggest spike in median household income in fifty years. In other words, finally middle class Americans are beginning to enjoy the fruits of the economic recovery.

Sure, Democrats were more likely to feel that the country was on the right track than Republicans, but the numbers are so overwhelming (66/27 wrong track/right track) that clearly many, many Democrats are dissatisfied. Hohmann sought input from a variety of pollsters and wonks, but I found myself agreeing most with Kellyanne Conway:

We noticed a number of years ago that the responses to the wrong track question are not purely economic . . . In fact, for many Americans, they are not connected to politics or policy at all. We who work in the polling/media/politics axis mistakenly assume they are. While one’s attitudes toward the state of the nation are related to one’s economic condition, other cultural, attitudinal and situational factors are also in play. Frustration and pessimism seem to have reached a fever pitch for many folks, too.

This strikes me as exactly right. A person who lives in a working class community that is battling rampant opiate addiction — or a middle class community where families are beginning to fracture — isn’t necessarily going to believe the country is healthy even if they have enough money to replace their old car, or if they’re not having trouble making the house payment. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from information indicating not just skyrocketing death rates in the working-class white community but also the increased racial tension in urban America, it’s that a country can suffer independently of its political policies. 

In other words, there are some problems that are beyond politics. Yes, good policies can adjust incentives, but — at the end of the day — good policies don’t keep families together or keep the needle out of a young man’s arm. As I wrote in the print edition of National Review a couple weeks ago, a true Ronald Reagan-style “morning in America” renaissance is made far more difficult when there is an increasing lack of cultural cohesion and family stability. 

That doesn’t mean that we’re beyond help or hope — or that bursts of optimism aren’t possible in response to a true economic surge or other events that bolster national pride — but it does mean that cultures can and do break so thoroughly that even good presidents can’t put them back together again. We’re not there yet, thankfully, but the family — and our culture — can’t take much more abuse.

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