For eleven years straight, every single NBC News poll asking if America is "on the right track" or "on the wrong track" has show greater support for "on the wrong track." In the latest poll, "wrong" was winning in a rout, 62 to 28 percent. Large majorities of Americans also think that their children will have tougher lives, economically, than they have had.
The mood of the country is pretty dismal; for anyone who remembers the late 90s the contrast is stark. Back then the loony best sellers predicted an internet revolution that would enrich and empower everyone, and Dow 36,000; this year they predict climate catastrophe and robots that will take all of our jobs.
What I find depressing about this situation is that political solutions seem so distant. Americans are united in hating the status quo but bitterly divided about the changes they want, with Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party commanding roughly equal levels of support. Presidential politics has been reduced to a struggle over the 5% or so of voters in the middle, since the other 95% have already made up their minds before the candidates have even announced; Mitt Romney famously complained that 47% of the country would never vote for him no matter what he said, and he wasn't far off. Non-voters increasingly tune out the whole business, certain that politics will never lead to anything good.
This frustrates me because I don't think our problems are really all that bad, in historical terms, and I think some of them would be easily solvable if we would just elect the right people. Everyone from Mitt Romney to Bernie Sanders has complained that we can't build grand new projects any more, and that our old airports and highways are a disgrace. We could fix this. If we returned income tax rates to the level of 1999, raised the gasoline tax in line with inflation, and cut defense spending by 5%, we would have tens of billions a year to spend on every sort of infrastructure. I think this sort of spending might have a major impact on the national mood, cutting deeply into the sense that we just can't do anything any more.
If we imposed a carbon tax and put in place modest subsidies, we could radically accelerate the already-ongoing switch to renewable energy and cut our CO2 emissions to sustainable levels within 15 or 20 years. (A carbon tax is by far the most sensible way to do this, much better than a bureaucratic boondoggle like Cap and Trade, and it has even been embraced by some libertarian activists --see The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax.)
Ongoing criminal justice reform will reduce the prison population, saving the states billions that they could then invest in education or other more productive activities. The return of all those prisoners and people who never become prisoners to their communities might have a significant impact on life in our poorest communities.
Of course that will still leave us with plenty of hard problems, from cancer to inequality. But every society has hard problems, so that shouldn't keep us from feeling better about our age.
It may be that even without government intervention some combination of new technologies and business changes will create a new boom, and lift us from our doldrums. I doubt it, though, and I think it makes more sense to look to the public sector. For that to happen we have to stop electing people sworn to keep the government from working and send to Washington people who want to use the government to make things better in America.