Like a lot of people, I am no big fan of what electoral politics has become in America. One reason is the appalling rhetoric. As this political season heats up, one can reasonably expect the Democrats, as members of the party out of power, to talk about everything that has gone wrong in the country under its current leadership, just as in the 2000 election cycle, the Republicans devoted themselves to the same exhausting nonsense.
The announcement that the sky is falling is nothing new in our political life, of course, and it plays extraordinarily well, even among voters in a land that has almost everything. America has the world's mightiest economy, foremost scientists, best health care, and most astonishing selection of consumer goods. The air and water are growing cleaner and cleaner. The streets are growing safer and safer. Diseases that ravage other parts of the world are mostly either unknown or under control here. Our range of constitutional freedoms, even in a time of tension over terrorism, remains far broader than anywhere on the face of the globe.
Yet when a politician, or an activist, or a television commentator tells us that the land is actually a mess, that things are getting worse, we perk up and listen, for a distinct public pessimism is the mark of our era. Good news we greet with skepticism. Bad news we believe at once.
The question of why we behave this way—and what America might be like if we should stop—motivates a marvelous recent book by Gregg Easterbrook, titled The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. "If the Western world has known a Golden Age," he writes, "it is right here, right now."
Why, then, are people unhappy? Why do we so engage in what Easterbrook calls "the collective refusal to believe that life is getting better"? There are many small reasons, he says—such as the way that each success (think: the automobile) breeds new challenges, or the unfortunate fact that interest groups on the left and the right alike only make money by shouting about the horrors to be battled—but there is also a big reason: "the discontinuity between prosperity and happiness." Optimism and joy, in short, do not come from our material possessions.
Easterbrook, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who writes for both The Atlantic Monthly and The New Republic (and may actually be best known for Tuesday Morning Quarterback, his wildly popular blog about professional football), is a graceful prose stylist with a long history of endorsing controversial, and contrarian, ideas. He is not easy to pin down politically. (In his other work, he has supported national health insurance, for example, but skewered the environmental movement for its excesses.) But what is always useful in his work is that, unlike so many who write to stir up controversy, he likes to propose practical solutions.
In the case of our refusal to acknowledge good news when it comes our way, Easterbrook points to a spiritual, not a material, failure. He proposes that we need to stop being quite so self-interested, and spend more time on simple gratitude for the remarkable situation in which we find ourselves. This is not, he hastens to add, a gratitude that means all our desires are fulfilled; it is, rather, the gratitude of a mature person who does not dwell on what she lacks or has failed to achieve, but on understanding what truly matters in life. He quotes the Roman orator Cicero: "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others." He suggests gratitude to God, simply for creating us, and having a reason for doing so. And he insists upon gratitude to our families and others who have fought for what we now enjoy: "Failing to feel grateful to those who came before is such a corrosive notion, it must account at some level for part of our bad feelings about the present. The solution—a rebirth of thankfulness—is in our self-interest."
This does not sound, perhaps, like the stuff of exciting politics. It may seem difficult to win passionate votes on the ground that life is good. But Easterbrook, toward the end of this gem of a book, has an answer to this, too. Earth is full of challenges: the debilitating poverty and disease in much of the Third World is his principal example. If we feel the need to solve problems (as we should), why should we not work for the betterment of others instead of ourselves? Now, that would be an election worth remembering: One in which the candidates, instead of focusing our attention on ourselves, reminded us of the requirement that we love our neighbors; and reminded us, too, that our neighborhood is the world.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Recent Christianity Today columns by Stephen L. Carter include:
Sports Mobs and Manners | There's a difference between cheering the home team and being boorish. (Aug. 25, 2003)
Roe vs. Judicial Sense | Forget briefly its immorality—it's just bad law (July 1, 2003)
Willing to Lose | By voting we place our hope in the next world. (March 4, 2003)
Virtue via Vouchers | The Supreme Court's recent decision can help prevent more corporate scandals. (Dec. 4, 2002)
Remedial History | The educational establishment seems confused about our spiritual heritage. (July 10, 2002)
Uncle Sam Is Not Your Dad | The separation of church and state protects families too. (March 22, 2002)
A Quiet Compromise | Why a moment of silence is better than school prayer. (Feb. 25, 2002)
Leaving 'Normal' Behind | Life before September 11 seemed more secure, but do we really want it back? (Dec. 4, 2001)
Rudeness Has a First Name | Instant informality actually sabotages true friendship. (Nov. 2, 2001)
Why Rules Rule | Debates on the Ten Commandments expose our culture's ultimate rift. (Sept. 6, 2001)
We Interrupt This Childhood | Parents who raise their children to do right face a barrage of resistance. (July 11, 2001)
And the Word Turned Secular | Christians should count the cost of the state's affirmation. (May 29, 2001)
Vouching for Parents | Vouchers are not an attack on public schools but a vote of trust in families. (Apr. 2, 2001)
The Courage to Lose | In elections, and in life, there is something more important than winning. (Feb. 6, 2001)
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