I'm still here at Bastrop Federal Satellite Camp searching for happiness, returning to the November National Geographic article by Dan Buettner. I wrote previously about the happiest countries--Costa Rica, Denmark and Singapore. Today I'm wondering why the United States is not, and I'm reminded of my most unforgettable moment in television drama. It aired on June 24, 2012 in the opening scene of Aaron Sorkin's Newsroom series when actor Jeff Daniels answered the softball question, "Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?" I think Sorkin may have been onto something about our happiness. If you missed that scene, it's worth 4 minutes and can be viewed here.
On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy stood on the western steps of our nation's Capitol and spoke these now familiar words to those gathered on the National Mall, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Fifty six years later, Donald J. Trump stood at that same place and said, "For too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country."
Notwithstanding which audience may have been larger or whether the rain ceased and the sun broke through as the words were spoken, do you notice the difference? How did we get from hopeful sacrifice and service to despair, blame, and fear? How did we get from 'enough to share' to 'scarcity'? There are undoubtedly multiple reasons, some real, others imagined. Some reasons are societal, while others are manifested individually. I'll write later about the individual reasons (yeah, I'm going to need a Part Trois), but there is a collective sense in this country, in blue and red states, that our government doesn't work any more, that our infrastructure, literally and figuratively, is crumbling around us, that the system is rigged by the 'other guys' who are causing all the problems.
Two fundamental values have shaped America--freedom and opportunity. While these still exist, there is a growing undercurrent that both are getting scarce because of these same 'other guys'. I believe this scarcity is exaggerated but used well by political forces to our detriment. It divides us and this societal stress subconsciously impacts our ability to collaborate, to interact, to listen, even to talk to other Americans. George W. Bush recently made an astute distinction between nationalism and this kind of tribalism.
When Americans get tribal, it's easier to be angry and afraid, to blame; and it's much harder to be happy.