The 35-Year Bad Mood

Commentary

Thirty-five years ago, in 1973, I spent much of the summer after my freshman year in high school watching the greatest show in the history of American politics: the hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. That committee was better known as the Ervin committee, and it was investigating Watergate.

The Watergate hearings began on May 17 and were televised gavel-to-gavel until they ended on Aug. 7. On some senses, however, the final gavel still hasn't sounded. The Watergate effect still haunts not just American politics, but the American mood.

At the beginning of the summer of 2008, three and a half decades after the Watergate hearings, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll came out. It found that 82 percent of those polled believed the country was seriously on the wrong track. They were the gloomiest results in 15 years. But they are not out of whack with the basic trends of public attitudes since the 1960s.

Watergate was something of a symbolical tipping point in how Americans perceived their public institutions and public life. What's striking is that the country hasn't bounced back yet.

The Harris Poll has long and regularly measured what Americans think of their institutions. In 1966, for example, 42 percent had confidence in Congress; in 2007, that number had dropped to 10 percent. The White House fell from 41 percent to 22 percent; the military from 61 to 46 percent.

It isn't just government that Americans have grown to disrespect. Major companies had the confidence of 55 percent of those polled in 1966, but just 16 percent in 2007. Organized religion fell from 41 to 27 percent.

There is no major institution or aspect of our public culture that is held in higher esteem now than before the 1960s.

And all of this because of a "two-bit burglary," as Richard Nixon called it? Well, no.

On the civic plane, Watergate followed the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, racial and political riots, and Vietnam. Since then, government has become dominated by political campaigning and campaigning by marketing. This has been a formula for increasing civic disenchantment.

On the social plane, the 1960s marked a change in how Americans inherited the worlds and values of their parents and ancestors. Nothing was to be automatic anymore; nothing was taken on faith. Traditional (or just habitual) approaches to religion, sexual relations, work, citizenship and morality were widely rejected.

Increasingly, Americans chose not to live in their hometowns or near their families. Many fundamental things in life became matters of choice; like omnivorous lifestyle consumers, Americans grew accustomed to deciding everything — how to be religious, whether to marry or have children, whether to retire to a golf or tennis community, and even whether to get new breasts, eyelids or chins.

As with politics, this hasn't worked out too well.

Though most all of the objective conditions of American life have improved since the 1960s, Americans have a sustained crankiness.

Civil rights have been extended in meaningful ways to communities that lacked them before the 1960s: racial minorities, homosexuals and people with disabilities.

And no nation on Earth has ever been more long-lived, healthy, well-sheltered, prosperous, safe from foreign intrusion and free in the pursuit of happiness.

But happiness, the social scientists tell us, has declined in America.

Poll numbers and statistics just hint at things deeper. In ways impossible to quantify, Americans have become down on America, allergic to much of what goes on in public.

Many parents, whether they are Christian home-schoolers or urban liberals, feel that pop culture is toxic, and they guard their children from it in ways that were unthinkable a generation ago. Primetime network television is off-limits because it is mostly violent, potty-mouthed or exploitive. The advertising is grossly sexualized and cravenly materialistic. Would-be sports heroes tend to be pumped up on steroids, under indictment or so wealthy they are more like corporations than shortstops.

The public behavior in our everyday lives hasn't fared much better. Road rage is a common new syndrome. So are people who whip out BlackBerries at weddings, ignoring the person at the table next to them to check the latest e-mail from work. So are people who honk the details of their latest dental trauma into their cell phone in an otherwise elegant restaurant.

In politics, the vacuum of strong leadership, effective political parties, bipartisanship, sober media and political tolerance has been filled by media, marketing and phoniness. In private life, the vacuum of tradition and community has been filled by, well, media, marketing and phoniness.

In the 1970s, Americans looked to a new generation of politicians and to political "reform" for renewal. At the beginning of the 21st century, we are still looking.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.