The National Mood

As Americans wait, hopefully or apprehensively as the case may be, to see what happens next to the Obama legislative agenda, a question unavoidably suggests itself: how on earth did we get into this mess? A mess that evidently transcends the question of health care, unemployment or any other particular issue and reflects the fact that Americans collectively are angry, confused, and fed up.

‘Anger’ has of course become every pundit’s favorite explanation for what happened in Massachusetts, where voters handed a Senate seat occupied during most of the half-century past by John and Edward Kennedy to a Republican, Scott Brown. But anger about what?

President Obama says it was residual anger at George W. Bush. Others, noting that Obama has been president for a year, say it’s anger at him. There’s probably truth in both explanations.

Obama was elected in 2008 because he promised change. So far he’s failed to deliver-at least, to many people’s satisfaction. Whether that reflects a failure of policy, of procedure, or of personal temperament, or the machinations of a vast right-wing conspiracy directed by Rush Limbaugh, is an interesting question but one that needn’t detain us here. What matters is that although Obama promised change, to many people things look much as they did before-and they don’t like it. Taking matters into their own hands, it seems, Massachusetts voters produced a change named Scott Brown.

So what is going on here? What’s really bugging Americans in large numbers these days?

A great deal of the answer is found in the history of the last two decades.

After the fall of communism and the end of the cold war, Americans were promised the “end of history,” a happy ending to end all happy endings. The country still had a few little problems of course, but none of them too serious. After half a century of international anxiety and nuclear threat, Americans could finally put their feet up and relax.

One predictable result of this was the onset of an era of national self-indulgence and self-deception. Its most visible symptom was an economic boom in which greed and risk-taking became the norm.

Complacency was shattered on September 11, 2001. Suddenly the nation was on  virtual wartime footing. Americans accepted it at the time. But now, going on nine years later, the strain is starting to show. Iraq was excruciating. Afghanistan looks the same. A man fingered to U.S. intelligence as a threat nevertheless got a shot at blowing up a U.S. airliner last Christmas Day. Add to that the economic crisis of the last two years. Now do you wonder why people want change?

But the roots of the national mood go deeper. It’s been clear for years that the consensus on moral values holding the country together is badly frayed. The rights and wrongs of fundamental issues are bitterly disputed. That’s what the culture war is about. And the efforts of courts to impose solutions are deeply resented.

The United States today unquestionably does need change. And on a fundamental level-the level of values and beliefs. When and if a leader emerges who can satisfy that desire and bring Americans together again on things like abortion and gay rights, as well as less sharply defined issues like illegal immigration, environmental policy, and health care reform, he or she will be welcomed. But given the ideological polarization of the values debate, that won’t happen any time soon, and the nation’s current angry and unsettled mood seems likely to persist into the indefinite future.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • I was only able to read the article by looking at the page’s source code (ctrl-u, for Firefox). I’m using Firefox 3.5.6 and CrunchBang Linux 9.04.01 Lite (which is based on Ubuntu 9.04; the differences are nearly all in things that should not affect Internet usage).

  • christymomof3

    Thanks, Mary (or whoever takes care of the tech stuff for CE), for fixing this. That Firefox source code trick left it still really hard to read. But thank you, too, Arkanabar, for the tech tip.

  • goral

    Unfortunately the fixes to the crunchBang in the country are going to be a lot harder to fix. The fox who’s in there now is not too slick for us chicken farmers. Listen to the reaction of those listening to his tech tips.
    Justice Alito just said – read my lips.

  • nearstar

    It took the last administration 8 years to get us derailed into this ditch. How in the world could you expect even someone as smart as Mr Obama to get us out in one short year? It takes ALL of us, pulling together.

  • lkeebler

    Quote: “So what is going on here? What’s really bugging Americans in large numbers these days?”

    Two words: The economy. There has been no improvement, in fact it has worsened with unemployment at the real figure of around 17%. A lot of people out of work and coming to the end of their unemployment are not very happy people (and then the millions of others worried about their jobs). No amount of media Obama hype is going to convince people who are hanging on to their jobs by a thread or without jobs that everything is rosy (or getting better). A lot of money has been spent by the government with no results and with the Obama emphasis on anything and everything most people don’t want – it is the Obama wish list not the needs of the American people that our Congress is obsessed with. No amount of finger pointing by this administration is going to make the economy better, people want results after a year in office (and zillions of their hard-earned-sweat-and-blood tax dollars). They are sick of the reckless spending that is spinning this country into the abyss.

    This all said, you are right that “values and beliefs” are at the core of the problem. We need a moral bailout (and a heavy dose of it) in the worst way. Any monetary/legislative/governmental efforts are only a dirty band aid on a large festering sore that will eventual poison the whole body if continued to be ignored. Unfortunately I don’t see this administration going in the moral/ethical direction but sadly in a hit-the-ground-running direction of so much that is corrupt and immoral. God help us!

  • goral

    The blame Bush game worked during the campaign but it’s all played out a year later and most of those who were buying it then are now seeing Obama where Bush was and pointing the same finger.

    Most of the country now doesn’t expect Obama to make any change for the better.
    All of us on the right who examined his economics, ethics and politics a year ago knew for sure that this guy is too “smart” to do the right thing.
    Why would we want to pull for him when he neither wants us, respects us or represents us?! That suggestion is preposterous.

    Let ALL of those who put him into office pull with him and demonstrate to us their genius and that of their leader. So far he’s demonstrated his genius for spending tax dollars and doubling Bush’s unemployment figure.

    I’m not participating in this train wreck about to happen.

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