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America’s optimism gap: It’s not what you think

Who feels the most optimistic? Whites? Blacks? Hispanics?

Whether it’s myth, mush or gospel truth, optimism – the can-do spirit – has always been a core trait in the American “brand.” In this Thanksgiving season, however, the menu of who is feeling thankful and hopeful and who isn’t is unusual.

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll tried to get at Americans’ feelings about the future. Among the questions were ones basically asking people if they were feeling “cautiously optimistic” about the direction of the country or they had a sense of “unease” about it.

Overall, 58 percent were optimistic, 48 percent were uneasy. That’s not a great showing, but there were exceptions.

Ninety percent of blacks felt optimistic: among Hispanics, 71 percent: among whites, 56 percent.

Only 22 percent of likely Republican voters were optimistic. 89 percent of probable Democratic voters were.

Normally, polling about the direction of the country, about optimism and pessimism, closely mirrors economic status. Not now. Statistically, blacks and Hispanics are not doing better than whites financially.

The annual American Values Survey in 2015 conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute digs a little deeper and at a different angle. It found that how Americans are feeling about the country varies greatly by religious affiliation.

The most pessimistic groups are white evangelical Protestants and white mainline Protestants; majorities believe that America’s best days are past and gone. But majorities of Americans who are affiliated with non-Christian religions (55 percent), Catholics (56 percent), black Protestants (57 percent), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (58 percent) are feeling optimistic.

The most pessimistic were Tea Party followers, 65 percent of whom are gloomy about the direction of the country.

These attitudes reflect feelings about changing culture, not only economics. The PRRI report asked if the American way of life and culture has gotten better or worse since the 1950s. Sixty percent of black Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics think American culture has changed for the better since the 1950s. Only 42 percent of white Americans agree with that.

“While white Protestants share the economic concerns with others in the country, because they have historically been culturally dominant, many are experiencing a kind of dislocation and disillusionment about their waning numbers and cultural influence,” Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, told me. “White evangelical Protestants have also experienced the strongest shocks from the shifts on cultural issues, such as same-sex marriage, where they went from being in the mainstream of American opinion to being outliers within the span of a decade.”

By contrast, even in a year marked by dramatic episodes of racial tension, minorities are more optimistic than whites. That is driven less by pocketbook economics than by a sense of whether one’s own group is gaining in society or losing ground.

That sense of losing ground is most acute among Tea Party followers, according to the PRRI poll. As an organized force, the Tea Party is shrinking but it core views are not. “The Tea Party gave very visible expression to views that have now become widely diffused through the Republican Party,” according to Jones. “For example, while a remarkable 68 percent of Tea Party members say discrimination against whites has now become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, 64 percent of Republicans overall also agree.”

These are precisely the sorts of voters who are now picking Donald Trump and Ben Carson in early polls. A common and sensible explanation for the popularity of these unconventional novelty candidates is that angry voters are protesting by flirting with outsider candidates.

These voters are certainly angry. A new study by the Pew Research Center found that 42 percent of the most politically active Republicans describe themselves as “angry” about the government; only11 percent of active Democrats do.

I suspect that anger is not the root emotion of these angry white voters. The PRRI polling and much other research points to something deeper. Yes, it is partly a sense of losing ground – and privilege – in society to other groups; that is easy to prey on by politicians willing to hunt scapegoats. But there is also, I believe, a less toxic feeling that lots of good traditions and institutions in America are fading away and not being replaced by anything that works or fits.

White voters down the educational and economic scales a bit began dumping their traditional allegiance to the Democrats in the 1980s. The Republicans lured them away mostly using social and cultural issues such as abortion and affirmative action.

The Democrats have not done a good job regaining their trust or votes. It is clear, however, that the Republicans have not done a good job of ministering to their fears and needs. And so these are not the most thankful of voters this season.

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