Gallup’s current survey of how Americans feel about their personal financial situation has surprised many people. The media and Gallup’s analysts are citing it as evidence that US President Donald Trump’s policies have been successful and that Trump consequently has excellent chances of being reelected.
On its webpage that bears the title “Record-High Optimism on Personal Finances in U.S.,” Gallup points to this conclusion: “Americans’ levels of optimism about both their current financial situation and where it will be a year from now are at or near record highs.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The belief that the state of the world may possibly be better than everyone knows it is.
Reporting on the Gallup poll, USA Today gave a political twist to the results in an article with the title “More than 6 in 10 Americans say they feel better off after first 3 years of Trump, poll says.” Although the poll was about personal finances with no mention of politics, the article pushed the idea that the poll was about voters endorsing Trump: “A strong majority of Americans (62%) say Trump should get credit for improving the economy.”
This constitutes a good example of how the title of an article supposedly reporting simple statistics can produce an effect of fake news. The questions in the poll made absolutely no reference to Trump. Yet USA Today affirms that the people polled give “credit” to Trump.
Here is the text of the two questions in the Gallup poll: “Would you say that you are financially better off now than you were a year ago, or that you are financially worse off? Looking ahead, do you expect that at this time of year next year you will be better off than now or worse off than now?”
The problem with this kind of “interpretation” of a poll is that it contains an unjustified logical jump. It treats a question that has nothing directly to do with politics as if it were focused on political decision-making. In so doing it makes three contestable assumptions that it expects its readers to candidly accept. The first posits not only that a president has the power to control the economy, but also that the current state of the economy is a direct result of that control. No serious economist would agree with that.
The second is what may be called the Carville fallacy. Named after President Bill Clinton’s adviser, James Carville, it consists of the belief that voters’ sentiment about the economy fatally determines the outcomes of presidential elections. The third assumption is that voters see a direct correlation between their own situation and the state of the national economy.
Political consultant James Carville is credited with guiding Bill Clinton to victory in 1992 by insisting that “It’s the economy, stupid.” Clinton won that year, not because of Carville’s insight, but because a strong third-party candidate, Ross Perot, entered the race, drawing votes away from the incumbent George H. W. Bush. Ed Burmila, writing for the New Republic, reminds today’s readers how the media fabricated the myth of Carville’s genius. Following Clinton’s 1992 victory, “Carville and his ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ tagline were treated with something approaching awe by CNN and the Sunday panel shows.”
That’s how political hyperreality works. Carville’s slogan sounded pithy. Clinton won the election, so the media conclude that the slogan must be the truth that explains Clinton’s victory. And so the Carville fallacy became a dogma in US political culture.
While the economy does play an important role in any election, the Gallup questions have no discernable connection with political decision-making. This is especially true in today’s confused political context that oversees an increasingly precarious economy.
People don’t think about politics in the same way they did in 1992. Take the example of someone today who feels totally crushed by an unresponsive economy, with no prospects for a steady job, but discovers a way of getting around it by becoming an Uber driver. People in that situation will have to respond with an unequivocal “yes” to Gallup’s first question. Does that mean that Uber drivers are so satisfied with their job that they see the economy positively? Even if they felt that the move to Uber was an improvement over joblessness, would such people believe that their “good luck” reflects a general improvement in the economy as a whole?
If asked to think about it, how many would attribute their own improved prospects for survival to Trump’s policies? Or, more realistically, how many would simply attribute it to their own initiative in finding a fix during a dark moment of their existence?
In today’s gig economy, there definitely are more survival opportunities than in the past, thanks to the proliferation of low-paid, deeply unfulfilling service jobs. That literally means that people who take those jobs will be financially better off, or rather less miserable than they were before accepting those jobs. But do they feel any more secure? And does it mean they want the economy to continue in the same direction or that they trust Donald Trump to make things even better in the future?
Politics has always attempted to see history, even very recent history, as a springboard for the future rather than the complex story of the past. History provides politicians with the myths that make it possible for them to predict even better consequences that will occur by repeating and even intensifying policies and actions that everyone believes have worked in the past. That is why the Gallup poll’s second question, about the future, is even more misleading.
Throughout the nation’s history, US culture has emphasized optimism and elevated it to the status of a cultural norm. If you are chronically pessimistic, your doctor (provided you can afford one) will probably give you a prescription for Prozac. Sometimes the worse things get, the more a person feels culturally obliged to put on a brave face and play the role of the optimist.
US history has been driven by the illusive but ever-present goal of realizing the American Dream. Because only a few achieve it and become highly visible celebrities, for most people it’s a scenario for the future. For the as yet unrealized dream to continue into the future, each individual needs to give it some identifiable content, their vision of their own evolution. But for an increasing number of Americans, saddled with debt, unsure of their long-term survival, that vision has seriously faded.
When Trump chose to reorient political culture from the always brighter future to the fantasized past with his slogan “Make America Great Again,” he may have simply been putting the last nail in the coffin of the American Dream. Where once Americans were proud to “dream the impossible dream,” they now see the dream as literally impossible.
The phenomenon known as fear, uncertainty and doubt, or FUD — initially imagined by marketers to be an effective sales strategy designed to discredit competitors — has now become a central feature of a culture that has lost its traditional bearings. The seeds were there well before Trump’s accession to power, so he can’t be blamed for creating it, but his victory in 2016 in some sense made it official.
When FUD becomes a dominant mood, the distinction between optimism and pessimism begins to blur. The age of Trump has erased any shared vision of the nation’s future, as the current political polarization shows. It has seriously aggravated the trend — always a feature of US culture but not always dominant — toward defining everything in terms of the individual’s self-interest. It has removed both the sense of continuity with the past and the ability to imagine, as John F. Kennedy did 60 years ago, a “new frontier” as the means of delineating and believing in the future.
Where Kennedy saw a frontier that invited Americans to expand further, Trump has focused on a border, which now requires a protective wall. This represents a radical shift in the culture and its relationship with time. It’s no longer a question of dreaming about the ways of making things better but rather preventing them from getting worse. In such circumstances, many Americans will superficially revert to the traditional reflex of optimism, not out of conviction, but as a defensive measure. In a FUD-dominated society, we stop believing in the future as something desirable that we can plan for. Anything we say or think about the future ultimately belongs to the world of fantasy.
If Gallup had asked the same question about the future in 1994, it would have caused people to think seriously about two things: their own life trajectory and the observable trends in society. But when the only unambiguous trend today is toward more and more FUD, even attempting to answer a question about the future loses its meaning. In other words, people may be hopeful for the future, but that doesn’t mean they are optimistic.
To round up its analysis, under the subheading “Bottom Line,” Gallup draws a facile conclusion from the poll: “These views align with President Donald Trump’s contention that Americans are doing better under his presidency, and with his use of the economy and job growth as key selling points for his reelection.”
For all the reasons cited above, claiming “these views align” with Trump’s seems abusive. Things simply don’t “align” in the ways they did in the past. We’re left asking ourselves if Gallup’s unjustified logical jump isn’t contributing, perhaps inadvertently, to Trump’s “selling points for his reelection.” Intellectual inertia will always feed political inertia, and that seems to be the way of the media today.
[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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