American public opinion polling in the 1990’s consistently reveals a society anxious about the future and apprehensive about priorities that seem out of whack. The polls also show that Americans are alarmed by the society’s moral decline. At the same time, ambivalence abounds about how to cope in these circumstances. Americans want freedom for the individual, but they are unhappy about how people use freedom. They want a high standard of living and financial security. Americans also claim that family life and friendship are most important to them, and then they feel conflicted when the race for prosperity robs them of time for care and love. Americans are skeptical about government programs but not likely to stand by calmly—especially if their perks are up for grabs—when talk about budget deficit reduction gets serious. Consuming desires for more and more collide with recognition, however faintly felt, that unending attempts to fulfill unsatisfied desire are unsustainable. Even when individuals think that their personal lives are going well—a feeling shared by 80 percent in some polls—Americans often say that the state of the union is headed in the opposite direction. Ironically, the happiness that Americans pursue, the good life that many of them enjoy, strangely leads to discontent in spite of all that they possess and accomplish.
How did Americans become so discontented? What can be done about this melancholy? Robert J. Samuelson, an astute columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post, seeks answers to those questions. The Good Life and Its Discontents grew out of his journalistic studies about the economic, political, and social development of the United States in the fifty years after World War II. Identifying a peculiarly American “dis- ease,” Samuelson’s book has three major parts plus an epilogue. The three parts diagnose the malady; the epilogue makes a modest attempt to prescribe steps toward health. According to Samuelson, American discontent results from an inflated sense of entitlement, a naïve optimism about capitalism, and a glut of “overpromise.” Straightforward and sober, the remedy—greater realism and responsibility—will be difficult for American dreamers to achieve, but failure to use the prescription, Samuelson judges correctly, is not a chance that the United States should take.
Samuelson’s governing question—How did Americans become so discontented?—is important, complex, and paradoxical. The question is important because how Americans feel about themselves and their country affects how they will think and act. The quality of the nation’s future hangs in the balance. In the late twentieth century, the particularly American characteristics of that dilemma contain distinctive complexities.
As the twenty-first century approaches, most Americans enjoy a material standard of living that exceeds any in previous human history. No foreign foes seriously threaten us. Unprecedented advances in medical science provide health care and longevity that earlier societies could scarcely imagine. Unemployment figures and inflation rates are favorable. The programs are not perfect, but government safety nets help huge numbers of unfortunate people. More and more Americans are going to college and university. Although prejudice and racism have not been eliminated, opportunity keeps opening for minorities. The list of advances could go on and on. The United States is not utopia, far from it, but progress is one of our most important products. Yet uneasy Americans—the poll numbers hover around 60 percent—lament the quality of national life. We worry that the future will not be better than the past. We fear that our children’s lives will be less desirable than our own. Uneasiness breeds uncertainty; uncertainty gives birth to the pessimism that stands knocking at American doors.
The paradox—“Americans,” writes Samuelson, “are feeling bad about doing well”—is compounded by the immense irony that it includes. Americans are better off than they often think, he argues, but their glum attitudes are laced with irony because optimism has typically been the hallmark of American belief. According to traditional self-characterization, Americans—individually and collectively—are “can do,” problem-solving folks who have the know-how and the gumption to make the American Dream, as President Bill Clinton has said, a reality for everyone who is willing to work for it.
The irony is that American optimism took us to considerable success and then left us discontented to such an extent that optimism itself has been called into question. This outcome, however, need not be the last word. Samuelson’s point is that a wise awareness of this condition suggests a way out. The way out cannot be a return to misguided optimism, but it may be found in greater realism and responsibility.
Tantalizing, ambiguous, frustrating—the American Dream has a central part to play in Samuelson’s outlook. As Samuelson acknowledges, pursuit of the American Dream has produced and expanded “the good life,” whose priorities are largely materialistic and economic. Typically, those priorities start with possessing a...
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