“Compared with 50 years ago [i.e. 1966], life for people like you in America is worse.”  Agree or Disagree.[1]


Almost half (46 percent) of voters agreed with this statement.  The distribution was pretty much balanced between men (45 percent) and women (46 percent).  Fifty years into Women’s Lib and almost half of women think that life for people like them is worse?  Maybe the half of guys who think that life is not worse are married to the women who think life is worse, while the half of women who think life is not worse are married to the guys who think that life is worse.  Or perhaps gender isn’t the salient identity for men and women.  Maybe race or social class is more important.

Thereafter, the distribution breaks down in interesting ways.

While a majority of whites (54 percent) think that life is worse, only 17 percent of blacks think that life is worse.  Despite all our failings and short-comings, the Civil Rights movement and the government policies which it compelled is a huge success.  Do whites feel worse off because blacks don’t feel worse off?  Not likely: too few people lost anything from the formal end of white supremacy.  America remains largely segregated; and black people remain at a lower income than do whites.

Better than half of people who actually were alive 50 years ago think that their condition is worse: 55 percent of people aged 65 or older and 53 percent of people aged 50 to 64.  Presumably they know what they’re talking about.  The first group was born before 1952; the second group between 1952 and 1966.  Then the sense that things are worse is higher for those with only some college (49 percent) and high school or less (51 percent) than for those with a BA (39 percent) or post-graduate education (37 percent).[2]

The sense of decline is much stronger among Republicans than among Democrats. Some 70 percent of self-identified Conservative Republicans and 58 percent of Liberal/Moderate Republicans think that life is worse.  In contrast, only 20 percent of self-identified Liberal Democrats and 35 percent of Conservative/Moderate Democrats think that life is worse.

American real incomes, life span, and medical care are much better than 50 years ago, so it is likely to be something else that gives them the sense of decline.  It is more than likely that the discontent among older people/white people/Republicans springs from factors like the impact of economic globalization and the advance of information technology, but also from the long string of domestic and international reverses.[3]  Perhaps this is an artifact of the Republican Party having progressively captured the heart of the old New Deal coalition (Southerners, the Northern working class) over the last 50 years.

Is it possible that the next election(s) will be a struggle between those who have lost from the big changes that have overtaken America and those who have at least survived them unscathed?  Will it be a struggle between Nostalgia for a by-gone age and Complacency about the new age?  That seems a poor basis for deciding the fate of young people in the face of what looks to be several decades of grave challenges at home and abroad.

[1] Charles M. Blow, “A Trump-Sanders Coalition?  Nah,” NYT, 2 May 2016.  OK, it’s Charles Blow.  Still…

[2] Still, better than a third of people with a post-graduate degree think that life is worse?  They can’t all be college professors.

[3] I just finished Gregg Herken, The Georgetown Set, and now I’m listening to Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us.  So, those books probably are shaping my interpretation.

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