- - Tuesday, April 5, 2016


Forrest Gump was a man ahead of his time. The hero of Winston Groom’s novel recalled that “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” A growing number of Americans are telling pollsters that, like Forrest Gump, they’re not sure what life will bring, but they’re sure that it’s not as good as it was in Mama’s day.

A cornerstone of the nation’s confidence has been that today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better still. By some telling, the American dream is fading. The reckoning is showing up not only in the way voters view their lives but in their favorites in the 2016 presidential election. Whoever is elected in November, Job One will be to restore Ronald Reagan’s promise that something better is waiting around the corner, that it can be “morning in America” again.

A Pew Research Center survey last month found that 46 percent of registered voters believe that life in America today is worse than it was 50 years ago for people like themselves, compared to 34 percent who say life is better, and 14 percent say it’s about the same. Republicans are more disillusioned about the future, with 66 percent saying things will be worse. Only 28 percent of Democrats share their pessimism. The descent of the culture into strange and weird territory has been largely driven by Democrats.

The survey found that 75 percent of the Republicans who support Donald Trump for president say life has deteriorated. Sixty-three percent of Ted Cruz backers and 54 percent of the followers of John Kasich, who in a moment of candor said that he should have been running as a Democrat, agreed. Only 34 percent of those who “feel the Bern” say life is not as good as it used to be, and 1 in 9 Hillary Clinton voters concur.

Not so long ago the outlook of the two major parties was exactly reversed. Jimmy Carter diagnosed a nation beset by economic stagnation, long lines at gasoline stations and suffering a crisis of confidence. He was widely mocked for saying America was suffering “from a sense of malaise.” Ronald Reagan turned the Carter malaise into a winning punchline: “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.” The Gipper’s sunny disposition dispelled the gloom in what then became the vibrant 1980s.

Much has happened since to erase the sunny outlook. The centrality of God and family in the lives of Americans, the centrality that underlay the founding of the nation, has eroded. People of faith are prosecuted for deeply held beliefs in traditional marriage and the moral teachings of the founding faith. Interest in worship is waning: 67 percent of those born before 1945 say faith is very important to them, and only 38 percent of their grandchildren say they feel that way. Out of wedlock births in 2014 reached 40.2 percent, pushing the long-held family model toward irrelevance.

The decline of traditional values is matched by economic stagnation, with median household income falling 6.5 percent to $53,657 between 2007 and 2014, as measured by the Census Bureau. President Obama’s doubling of the national debt in less than eight years, to $19 trillion, has saddled each American with a share of $58,000. If the followers of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders think life in America is better than it was 50 years ago, they’re content with a nation that bears little resemblance to its can-do past.

Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again,” sounds Reaganesque, but his blunt and often mean stump style is not at all like the Gipper’s sunny optimism. The election in November could determine whether the republic remains moored to its foundation of faith and family, or looks for sustenance to the trivial and trifling. The pollsters can’t predict that.

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