For most of human existence, the average man could look forward to a relatively short life of chasing game or extracting enough sustenance from the ground that his family could avoid starvation — at least, anyone in his family who had survived birth, precarious weather, natural disasters, infections, pestilence, accidents, wildlife, and all the other troubles of the world.
Even if he was brilliantly successful in this endeavor, it was not improbable that one day he would gaze at the horizon and glimpse a horde of antagonistic fellow humans approaching his hut. These strangers might have emerged from the sea, or they might have trekked from a foreign land, or maybe they just hiked over from the next village; but they probably intended to slaughter him in some highly disagreeable manner, rape his wife, and throw his children into a short but brutal life of slavery.
In other words, all things considered, your life is only mildly unpleasant.
If it’s true that we can judge the temperament of the country by surveying its popular culture, the nation’s collective psyche has an unhealthy apprehension about corruption, apocalypse, and unconscionable acts of mass violence in a society perpetually on the verge of collapse. I’m not going to lie: I eat a lot of it up. Not only on television — my favorite platform for sampling end-of-days fare — but anywhere I can find walking dead, vampires, robot singularities, or various other forms of dystopian strife descending on a world racing toward some Malthusian end almost always made possible by our own malfeasance and cowardice.
This trend is apparent not only in the adult cultural world, but also in the morally vacuous books and movies that dominate teen culture. In a time when society coddles young people, we have The Hunger Games (a story about children thrown into a murderous competition to entertain the despotic upper class), the Divergence series (a story about children who must fulfill some preordained purpose or be murdered by the despotic upper class), The Maze Runner (a story about children who solve giant puzzles or else . . . you get the idea), and hundreds of similar rip-offs lining the shelves of libraries and waiting to get made into rotten movies. Everything is scary. Nothing is real. Not really.
Social critics will tell you that these kinds of trends in popular culture reflect widespread apprehension about the future. And nearly every survey about that future tells us something similar. Not long ago, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 76 percent of Americans do not believe that their children’s lives will be better than their own — despite all the available evidence to the contrary, all the technological advances, and the indisputably uplifting trajectory of history. This number is now at an all-time high. Americans believe that the environment is getting worse, despite overwhelming evidence that everything from our water to our air is getting cleaner. Americans are more anxious about crime even as it falls, about guns even as they do less harm, about commodities even though there is less scarcity than ever, about our moral character even as we treat one another with more dignity, and about disease even as it is increasingly controlled or cured.
Polling suggests that Americans are increasingly displeased with their own lives as well. According to a 2014 Fox News survey, only 53 percent of citizens consider themselves “very happy” or “happy.” In 2001, 68 percent of Americans considered themselves happy. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of Americans described themselves as “disengaged” from their work. Most polls decades ago found that Americans were highly content with their work.
Though this is far from the first time the nation has had to deal with a weak economy, perhaps it’s economic uncertainty that has jaded us. Blame it on the media, which blow every morsel of bad news out of proportion, on Chicken Little environmentalists, and on those cantankerous pundits who write books likening contemporary political misfortunes to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Maybe it’s Washington. Politics is the art of convincing voters that everything will fall apart if you’re not elected. As Americans continue to drift toward opposing ideological and cultural poles, and as politicians ratchet up the blood-curdling rhetoric, the consequences of their candidates’ defeat seem increasingly harrowing to voters. Ask Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders fans how dreadful the future will be if we continue to allow establishment puppet masters to run the show. How can we make America great, again? By stopping the future and keeping the tedious, low-paying manufacturing jobs other nations have pilfered from our children — who will now be forced to work in air-conditioned offices, using computers and cellphones, rather than standing on assembly lines and gluing together cheap, junky plastic toys, where they belong.
The problems of corrupt, intrusive state institutions and bad policies are genuine, and they adversely affect the lives of millions of Americans every day. But Congress should not have to pass a bill to make you happy. Neither should your faith be tethered to a person who is elected every four years.
As a small-“c” conservative, I’m typically a big supporter of skepticism. Americans should be suspicious. Unsatisfied. Disgruntled. They should feel unease about abuses of power and the illiberal whims of the majority. People are the worst, after all. I get it. We need to keep America on its toes.
What we should not do is despair. This is not the worst of times. Not even close.
– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.