Seldom has optimism been in such short supply. As dawn breaks on 2018, two-thirds of Americans see their country headed down the wrong track, according to polls on the national mood. No surprise, then, that President Donald Trump’s approval rating dipped to a new personal low (32 percent) last month and that more than half (55 percent) of Americans held unfavorable views of this Congress’ signature achievement — tax legislation seen widely as a sop to corporations and higher-income Americans.
Add to that the crushing aftereffects of hurricanes, floods, fires and mass shootings, as well as mounting evidence of Russia meddling in the 2016 election, an extraordinary purge of notable men behaving badly with women, a surging stock market failing to lift all boats and, scariest of all, two of the world’s most unpredictable men with fingers hovering over nuclear buttons.
Not since the tumultuous civil rights-Vietnam-Watergate era have Americans been so tribalized, their fears stoked this time by a president with a routine disregard for facts, a sizable segment of the citizenry eager to be led by fables and a media tailored to reinforce the red/blue extremes.
“If optimism ever was like an emergency, it’s now,” the singer/artist Björk said in a recent interview, and she’s right about that. But the antidote that’s needed so badly is not the dreamy, utopian optimism of Björk’s new album. Nor is it the smiley-faced mask that pretends all is well. A better model would be the grim determination of Winston Churchill, the 20th century’s pivotal optimist, who, in the 1940s, turned Britons’ darkest days into their “finest hour.”
The existential drama may be missing from today’s search for an upside, but silver linings can be found. Consider the voters of Alabama. Three weeks ago, they delivered a stunning repudiation of racism, nativism and sexism in politics. Doug Jones’ victory was less a win for Democrats than a yearning for saner political choices.
Other possible encouragements for 2018?
As long as special counsel Robert Mueller keeps his job, Americans will have a chance to reaffirm John Adams’ dictum: that we have a “government of laws and not of men.” That means getting to the bottom of the Russia/Trump probe and fixing blame — if there is blame — wherever it lies.
It’s a good thing also that men in positions of power are finally being held accountable for forcing sexual favors on women. Yes, an absence of due process and of differentiation among offenses is troubling. But overall, the #MeToo trend is welcome.
That ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, appears to be in retreat is another swing in the right direction. No one should pretend that terrorism is finished. But the ambitious territorial gains of this murderous movement have been reversed and its appeal lessened.
Violent crime rates in the U.S., meanwhile, continue to linger at levels 60 percent below those of 25 years ago, despite upticks in a few cities.
Global efforts, both public and private, to mitigate climate change will push forward this year, despite foot-dragging by the U.S. Just last month, General Electric announced a cut of 12,000 jobs in its power division because clean energy alternatives are supplanting demand for coal and other fossil fuels. While carbon reduction goals are unlikely to be met in the coming decades, the inexorable march toward cleaner fuels is well underway, with or without the cooperation of Congress and the president.
Only one city will celebrate when Amazon announces its choice for a second headquarters early this year, but the decision will help Minneapolis-St. Paul and other cities to evaluate their competitive assets. The e-commerce giant wants to locate where there’s a growing talent pool, strong community/university synergies, advanced infrastructure (including mass transit), a lively cultural scene and attractive public spaces. That’s a good checklist to shoot for.
While landing Amazon is a long shot for the Twin Cities area, it will host the 2018 Super Bowl. The mega-event is expected to bring $338 million in direct economic benefit, plus an incalculable amount of “soft” impact in the form of media exposure. What’s unknown is how Minnesota in February will be depicted: a forbidding icebox or a winter wonderland.
The state, with two U.S. Senate races, a governor’s race and perhaps five close U.S. House races, will command a good slice of national political attention next fall. Perhaps it’s too much to expect, but Minnesota has a chance to tap into its tradition and show that respectful, informative, high-quality campaigns are still possible.
It is, after all, politics that’s causing so much trepidation as the new year begins. This is a politics of deceit, prejudice, fear and bullying. None of that originated with the current occupant of the White House. He just magnified it.