Split-level personality

Optimism, pessimism, and the American psyche

In 1980, Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan, running against Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter, asked voters, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Note that he said “you,” not “we” or “the United States.” Reagan believed that when things get better for individuals, society is better off; since his victorious campaign, few American politicians mention the possibility that a rising standard of living for many could be detrimental to the nation as a whole. Even fewer suggest that, regardless of recent history, America—or the typical American—is likely to be worse off in the future.

Writers are a different matter. Scads of best-sellers are based on the premise that America is going to hell—at least if readers fail to rally round their clarion call. Still, most of these books echo Reagan’s campaign query. That is, they deal in short time frames, citing something in recent memory—an election, a sensational crime, the 1960s or the 1980s—as the point of (almost) no return. And they blame one segment of society, usually a political party or ideological faction, for our (impending) doom.

A few recent books have taken a more nuanced and long-term view on the question of whether the United States is in decline—and especially whether the way we Americans choose to live is hastening our social demise. But even these works divide sharply between optimism and pessimism, between believing that we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction or that the best is yet to come. This year, David Brooks’s On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense and Michael Barone’s Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future take up the Reaganesque argument that individuals pursuing their own American Dreams will make this country stronger and happier. The opposite tack is taken in Jane Jacobs’s starkly titled Dark Age Ahead and Jeremy Rifkin’s The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, both of which depict our fabled American individualism as something closer to pigheadedness. Journalist and Brookings Institution fellow Gregg Easterbrook splits the difference: In his 2003 The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, he asserts that conditions are improving but the way we’re feeling about them is deteriorating. In this, Easterbrook turns American hopefulness on its head, saying that we have developed a genius for turning reasons for optimism into grounds for pessimism.

Lurking in the shadows behind all these books is another one. It is Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, published in 1999, which sounded the alarm about a decline in “civil society” in the form of fraternal organizations, neighborhood groups, and, of course, amateur sports leagues. Just about every sociologist—whether “comic,” as Brooks sometimes calls himself, or serious—writing about the American character these days feels compelled to address Putnam’s findings, and just about everyone agrees that it’s a bad thing for people to isolate themselves from their fellow citizens. However, the optimists (especially Brooks) believe that new forms of connection are being formed, based on real shared interests rather than mere geographical proximity. More dubious writers (including Jacobs and Rifkin) suggest that the trend identified by Putnam is only getting worse as Americans—at least, those with enough money—separate themselves into gated communities and sparsely settled suburbs. While the optimists argue that suburbanization is part of the road to progress that America has been traveling for decades, Jacobs and company worry that we’ve missed our exit.

Jacobs is best known for her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which eviscerated urban planning policies that tried to impose suburban characteristics on city landscapes. Death and Life helped to save Boston’s North End “slum” from being razed and the South End from being paved for the proposed Southwest Expressway. Dark Age Ahead is even more ambitious in intent, with Jacobs declaring, “The purpose of this book is to help our culture avoid sliding into a dead end.” Her major theme is that Western societies have fallen into dogma and fundamentalist thought (both secular and religious). American education, she asserts, has been eclipsed by “credentialing,” which focuses on job skills to the exclusion of teaching methods of scientific inquiry. Furthermore, more and more professions are insulating themselves from serious criticism. Herself a former editor for an architectural journal, Jacobs claims that architects effectively “ban criticism of [each] another’s work,” which only allows bad or outdated practices to continue. In a comment that particularly stings after 9/11, Jacobs also claims that “sincere but sentimentalized public appreciation of the risks police run” often undermines attempts to curb corruption and inefficiency in police departments.

Aside from offering education and political reforms that are not particularly original, Jacobs seeks a solution by returning to the argument that has threaded together her most successful books, which is that high population density and mixed-use development lead to social and economic vitality, and thus to society’s salvation. Indeed, in this book, she comes close to suggesting that suburban sprawl, as misguided as she thinks it is, may be self-correcting, speculating that today’s Boxfords and Kingstons will eventually become so densely populated that “smart growth” will occur without purposeful action on the part of state and federal governments to make it come about.

“When the housing bubble bursts,” she writes, referring to a phenomenon that seems long overdue in Massachusetts, “the force driving densification of suburbs could become irresistible in some places, overriding zoning and other regulations as owners of suburban houses and land discover that these can no longer supply cash passively but must somehow earn it instead.” In other words, today’s McMansion owners will one day cash out by selling their properties to multi-unit housing developers, much as farm owners once sold their unprofitable land to the McMansion developers.

If Jacobs spreads deterministic gloom about America’s future—if it gets bad enough, it might get better—in order to promote a different course, Rifkin seems to take pleasure in downgrading the stock of the United States, thereby validating a competing vision from another continent. “Much of the world is going dark, leaving many human beings without clear direction,” he writes. “[But] the European Dream is a beacon of light in a troubled world.” For Rifkin, Bowling Alone is not an early warning signal but something close to an epitaph for our culture. “If [Putnam] is right, it suggests that the American character has hardened, and that time and money pressures and pursuit of personal pleasure has made us even less willing to look out for the social well-being of our neighbors,” Rikfin writes. Europeans, he claims, are much less concerned with personal enrichment and more accustomed to thinking of the social good. He also argues that Europeans, less burdened by a Protestant work ethic, are better able to appreciate the good life. If Rifkin is correct, the late Julia Child was a social prophet, not just a whiz in the kitchen.

Optimist Barone would agree with Rifkin that “the American character has hardened,” but he sees that as our saving grace, a necessary correction to the welfare-state mentality he says almost ruined us. (And presumably has hobbled Europe, though Barone doesn’t bother to say so, treating that continent’s irrelevance as obvious.) A century ago, “many Americans faced a difficult, even cruel existence,” says Barone, identifying a “hard” America that even he would not want to bring back. Still, he argues, “The Softened America of the second half of the twentieth century created terrible problems of its own”—welfare dependency, overregulation of private industry, and the “lenient” treatment of criminals. “The Hardened America of the present is a much better place,” Barone concludes, citing with approval such trends as work requirements for welfare recipients and accountability standards in education. “And the future can be better still.”

Fellow optimist Brooks also argues that America is getting stronger—and, in the pursuit of creature comforts, is actually reversing the Bowling Alone phenomenon. “The paradox of suburbia is that people move there to pursue their private dreams,” he writes. But their “energy and productivity” have allowed the United States to maintain a global supremacy that Brooks likens to one of the most powerful, if not necessarily one of the most fear-inducing, animals: “If there were a rhino in the middle of your room, you wouldn’t be reading this book, you’d be staring at the rhino. The United States is the rhino of the world.” (He doesn’t mention that the rhino is an endangered species.) Brooks also asserts that our increasingly dispersed population is creating new ways of getting and staying connected. “In America,” he writes, “people find their own social circles, usually with invisible buffer zones. You may have moved to suburban Des Moines, but then you find a quilting club….You’ve found your community.”

Like Brooks and Barone, Easterbrook rejects the idea of America in decline.”In the United States and Western Europe,” he writes, “almost everything is getting better for almost everybody: This has been the case for years, and is likely to remain the case.” (In contrast to Rifkin, Easterbrook makes little distinction between the US and Europe, instead suggesting that Europe is becoming more like America —and hence in no position to lead the world on much of anything.) He offers plenty of statistics on the rising standard of living even among America’s poorest citizens, but my favorite fact in the pantheon of progress is this one: “In the year 1850…the typical American was twice as likely to be the target of a lawsuit as the typical American today.” If we can’t even fret over American litigiousness, what can be left to complain about?

Plenty, says Easterbrook. “The percentage of Americans who describe themselves as ‘happy’ has not budged since the 1950s,” he writes, “though the typical person’s real income more than doubled through that period.” Indeed, medical data suggest that depression “just keeps rising in incidence, with no end in sight.” Happiness, it would seem, is priceless. Ask why this is so, and we’re right back to Bowling Alone. “The same forces that are causing standards of living to rise and longevity to improve also promote loneliness,” Easterbrook writes. “Steadily smaller households, made possible by prosperity, mean steadily less human interaction.” The result is that “for increasing numbers of Americans and Europeans, life is like being in a really nice hotel room, but not having a good time because no one else came along on the trip.”

Rifkin returns, as always, to the supposed cultural difference between America and Europe to depict Americans as cut off from each other and from the past, even intentionally so. “Europeans seek inclusive space —being part of extended communities, including family, kin, ethnic, and class affiliation. Privacy is less important than engagement,” he observes. “For Americans, time is future-directed and viewed as a tool to explore new opportunities. For Europeans, time is more past- and present-oriented and used to reaffirm and nurture relationships.” Just so, says Brooks, who sees Americans’ self-absorption and future orientation as parts of our belief that we can make ourselves happy, if not today then sooner or later. “In American culture, the self becomes semidivinized,” he writes without apology. “People feel free to pick and choose their own religious beliefs, because whatever serves the self-journey toward happiness must be godly and true…. Only a radically hopeful nation would pile so much complexity and richness onto individuals.”

Better that than labor under the dead hand of the past, in the form of class resentments, ethnic divisions, and ancient grudges, in Brooks’s view. Indeed, our willingness to overlook differences, if not exactly appreciate them, makes American society, deep down, pretty civil, he insists. “As you look across the landscape of America—from hip bohemia to ethnic enclaves such as South Boston, through the diverse suburbs into exurbia and the farthest farm towns—you don’t see a lot of conflict,” Brooks writes. “You see a big high school cafeteria with all these different tables. The jocks sit here, the geeks sit there, the drama people sit over there, and the druggies sit somewhere else.”

To Brooks, the hope of a better future on the suburban frontier makes the abandonment of central cities a natural phenomenon rather than an urban tragedy. “What defines us as a people is our pursuit, our movement, and our tendency to head out,” writes Brooks.

But Easterbrook finds happiness hard to capture in suburban creature comfort, which is increasingly defined by a fast car and a soft couch.”Somehow Americans…have come to believe that a listless activity—sitting in a car and pressing a pedal—represents virility,” he writes. And although”the average person has ever more time in which no one is compelling him or her to do anything, most people use the bulk of their newfound free time to watch more television.” The latter activity is one source of Americans’ increasing anxiety about a world in which they are growing, materially speaking, ever more comfortable. “[Studies] have shown that the more television a person watches, the more likely he or she is to overestimate the prevalence of crime,” Easterbrook notes.

That fear can make people less likely to walk about their neighborhoods, the kind of scenario that has bugged Jacobs ever since The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In Dark Age Ahead, Jacobs does a few more riffs on the old saying that “city air makes you free.” Referring to ancient cultures, she writes, “Large and dense populations—in a word, cities—were able to support individuals and institutions engaged in activities other than direct food production.” While few of us in present-day Massachusetts work in agriculture, I wonder whether daily commutes, not to mention weekly excursions to Costco, can be counted as “direct food production” that keeps us from more rewarding activities. How is bringing home the bacon via I-495 different from dragging a carcass home to a cave?

Not surprisingly, Jacobs argues that dense population centers can better sustain small businesses and cultural institutions, but she also argues that they facilitate the most basic of human activities outside of one’s own survival. She writes that without “membership in a functioning community,” childrearing tasks can destroy a family from within. “The neuroses of only two adults (or one) focusing relentlessly on offspring can be unbearable,” she explains. “Two adults who have too little adult companionship can easily drift into isolation from society and become lonely, paranoid, resentful, stressed, depressed, and at their wits’ ends.” Though Jacobs doesn’t say so, these parents and their offspring may become the undecided voters who swing presidential elections.

The question, which none of these authors can answer definitively, is how many American suburbanites are finding their way toward Brooks’s quilting clubs and how many are living out the film American Beauty.

The urban-suburban divide is just one way that Americans choose distance and privacy over closeness and commonality in their endless pursuit of happiness. It needn’t be this way. Another writer who shares Jacobs’s sensibilities—and her penchant for succinct book titles—is Alain de Botton, whose new work Status Anxiety offers alternatives to suburbanization and the”keeping up with the Joneses” ethos it breeds in an almost wistful tone. De Botton suggests that improving public spaces can be as effective as a thousand federal programs—whether they promote job training, homeownership, or voter participation—in encouraging social connectedness.

“We may find that some of our ambitions for personal glory fade when the public spaces and facilities to which we enjoy access are themselves glorious to behold,” he writes, describing a situation difficult to imagine in today’s era of tight budgets at all levels of government. “In such context, ordinary citizenship may come to seem an adequate goal.”

Yet even the best-intentioned public programs in the US tend to offer people an escape from shared space—say, from apartments to homes of their own. Even public transit systems, which make commuting a communal experience, provide entirely separate service systems for wealthier professionals from the suburbs (who ride commuter trains) and the urban working poor (who typically ride slower, less reliable buses). Only on a handful of subway systems that traverse centers of commerce, whether in Boston or Manhattan, do the great and the lowly truly rub shoulders, happily or not.

Then there is the increasing popularity of “gated communities,” which add a physical dimension to the segregation of housing by class. “Millions of Americans have transformed large swaths of America’s public space into privatized communities,” writes Rifkin, “denying millions of other Americans access to and mobility through whole parts of America. A country that once prided itself on its openness and expansiveness—its lack of boundaries—is being systemically walled off into exclusive domains.”

For centuries, churches were the most dramatic examples of public space, their spires serving as compass points to city dwellers of all classes. In a more secular age, the private sector has taken over that role, to a degree, transforming displays of private success into celebrations of societal progress. “In 1973 Sears was America’s greatest merchant, proud enough of its standing to build the world’s highest skyscraper in Chicago,” notes Barone, approvingly. But of course, there have always been restrictions of public activity on privately owned property, including shopping malls. And after 9/11, corporations began to bar the public from the grand lobbies of their downtown skyscrapers. Here in Boston, the John Hancock Tower closed its 60th-floor observatory, which once gave any citizen the chance (for $6) to survey one of the country’s great urban landscapes. The 103rd-floor observatory in Chicago’s Sears Tower has been reopened since 9/11, but the retailer is long gone, having moved its headquarters to what Barone calls “a nondescript building in the suburb of Schaumberg, Illinois.”

Not that Barone has anything against nondescript buildings in out-of-the-way places. Indeed, he says the much-needed “hardening” of the American economy happened a world away from the showy skyscrapers of Manhattan and the public monuments of our capital city: “These entrepreneurs who did so much to change the private-sector economy and make it much more productive for the most part did not operate out of New York or Washington. Gates, Walton, and Smith [founders of Microsoft, WalMart, and FedEx, respectively] built their companies far from these centers.” Kicking Boston where it hurts, Barone adds, “Nor did they learn much of what made them successful from the nation’s elite universities.”

It’s true that major cities can be class-conscious and tradition-bound, but there’s still something to be said for old-fashioned office towers, from which executives emerge in the evening to share a sidewalk with the rest of us. With corporate chieftains now preferring remote headquarters that resemble the lairs of James Bond villains, they can hardly complain about their increasingly sinister reputations in popular culture.

Still, office parks continue to proliferate, as do the subdivision suburbs that dot more and more formerly pristine landscape, the greenfields of the American mind. “The split-level/rancher suburb is an entirely self-contained civilization,” writes Brooks. “These places were designed to be utopias set apart from the crowding and congestion and customs of the old places, from the problems of the past and the flow of human history. They are immune to time, geography, life, and death.”

They also use up a lot of land, a fact that increasingly worries planners and public officials. But Easterbrook sees elitism in attempts to keep turf away from developers. “When people object to development per se, what they almost always mean is that they have achieved a nice lifestyle and now wish to pull up the ladders against others,” he writes, “and, not coincidentally, to make their own properties more valuable by artificially limiting supply.” He concludes that “opposing sprawl can be a financial boon to anyone who’s already entrenched.”

Actually, Easterbrook has it backward. Suburban homeowners mostly don’t oppose sprawl; they’re happy to have it continue, as long as it’s in the same pattern. People who want to get away from others don’t mind if new homes are built even farther from the city than they are. What they oppose is the construction of new homes among their own, infiltrating density into their keep-your-distance environment.

That new density, of course, is exactly what Jacobs is hoping for: “It may be that when a formerly sprawling suburb becomes dense enough to populate a boulevard with strollers, users of mass transit, and errand goers, it will also have enough clout to lobby for a boulevard, and win it, to replace a stretch of bleak and more dangerous limited-access highway.”

Of course, Brooks would counter that, even if it does happen, the urbanization of suburbs will be simply another reason for the restless to search for a new place untainted by “the flow of human history.” If so many Americans have already gone to so much trouble to flee cities where they’d have to share buses and trains—with strangers!—it’s hard to believe that they won’t keep moving, and keep thwarting Jacobs’s dream.

Perhaps there is nothing to be done but let Americans continue to be Americans and hope for the best. Or is “hope” too loaded a word in this context? “Call it delusional,” writes Rifkin (he certainly does so), “but the sense of personal empowerment is so firmly embedded in the American mind that even when pitted against growing evidence of potentially overwhelming global threats, most Americans shrug such notions off as overly pessimistic and defeatist. Individuals can move mountains. Most Americans believe that. Fewer Europeans do.”

There’s nothing wrong with perseverance, or belief in its power. But is it always necessary to move mountains, or is there something uniquely—even pathologically—American in thinking that it is? “To really enjoy life, my European friends say to me, one must be willing to surrender to the moment and wait to see what might come one’s way,” Rifkin writes. “Americans are less willing to surrender their fortunes and happiness to fate. Most Americans believe that happiness isn’t something that comes to us, but something we must continually work toward.”

And “work” is meant literally. Even Easterbrook, who’s generally bullish on good old American grit, says that we’re a little nuts when it comes to the Protestant work ethic: “Parents and schools teach the concept of delayed gratification, of always looking ahead while keeping the nose to the grindstone. Many people learn this lesson so well that they can only look ahead, growing excessively concerned about future improvement.”

“Hard America” enthusiast Barone wouldn’t understand what the fuss is about. Not one to fret over the disappearance of after-school activities such as drama club, he writes, “Teenagers working after school may be seeking, and in any case are often getting, the Hard standards they don’t encounter during school hours.” He even cites a McDonald’s job as an ideal way to introduce teens to the benefits of a Hard existence, though I suspect that Barone would be horrified if his own children looked for life’s lessons there.

One possible downside of this Hard emphasis on personal responsibility is a lack of empathy for those who don’t manage to parlay an after-school job flipping burgers into lifetime financial security. “In a survey taken in 1924, 47 percent of Americans said it was your own fault if you did not succeed,” Easterbrook reports; “by 1979, 65 percent of Americans answered yes to that question.” Once again putting his critique in terms of cross-Atlantic culture clash, Rifkin points to the 1990 World Values Survey (sponsored by the University of Michigan-based Institute for Social Research), which “found that 71 percent of Americans ‘believe that the poor have a chance to escape from poverty,’ while only 40 percent of Europeans believe that’s the case.”

Maybe these numbers are no surprise, given that Americans are famous for their belief in self-reliance. To Barone, sympathy and introspection are, at best, the dividends of American toughness: “Soft America lives off the productivity, creativity, and competence of Hard America, and we have the luxury of keeping parts of our society Soft only if we keep enough of it Hard.”

Intriguingly, Rifkin identifies an American “softness” of his own: a penchant for patting ourselves on the back. “Because Americans are constantly over-empowering one another, the bar for performance continues to be lowered,” he hears from his sources on the other side of the Atlantic.”After all, if you are always being told that everything you do is insightful, well conceived and thought out, and effectively executed, then why try harder?”

Rifkin says this is a function of American smugness, a belief that we have nothing left to prove to the rest of the world: “For some, the American Dream, with its emphasis on unfettered individual accumulation of wealth in a democratically governed society, represents the ultimate expression of the end of history.” Another theory he advances is that we believe we are playing a game that is rigged in our favor. “Nearly half of all Americans (48 percent)…believe that the United States has special protection from God,” Rifkin writes, citing a 2002 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The belief that we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world is especially worrisome to Jacobs. “Cultural xenophobia” is frequently associated with “a society’s decline from social vigor,” she warns. It’s another way that, Jacobs fears, America is turning away from logos, or the Greek word for reason, to “mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backward to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.” It’s a charge that seems plausible enough as one listens to politicians and opinion leaders invoking America’s “founding fathers” and using phrases such as “a return to values” to describe their visions of the future. (While nostalgia is more commonly associated with conservatives, Democratic candidates have been using similar revanchist language since George McGovern adopted the slogan”Come home, America” for his 1972 presidential campaign.)

Jacobs spots this retreat from reason in such homely calculations as traffic engineers’ continued insistence that closing or narrowing city streets only forces cars to clog up other routes; contradicting such zero-sum-gridlock dogma, she provides evidence that it’s possible to reduce automobile traffic in one place without increasing it anywhere else nearby. And she faults the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for seeing the cause of hundreds of deaths during a July 1995 heat wave in Chicago in purely commercial-product terms. The CDC said, among other things, that not enough people had air-conditioners, while Jacobs says people in depopulated urban neighborhoods had too few stores and other gathering places to retreat to, and that fear of crime kept them stranded in overheated apartments. In both cases, the American affection for solving problems with road construction and consumer goods seems to have created blind spots in thinking.

In contrast, Brooks finds his inspiration elsewhere, paraphrasing George Santayana to justify, if not glorify, American avoidance of consequences.”Americans don’t solve problems, they leave them behind…. The exurban people aren’t going to stay and fight the war against the inner-ring traffic, the rising mortgages, the influx of new sorts of rich and poor…. They can bolt and start again where everything is new and fresh.”

At this point, Brooks’s optimism starts to sound pessimistic, or at least irresponsible, while Jacobs’s gloom sounds at least instructive, verging on hopeful (even without Rifkin’s Europe-worship). If nothing else, it seems like less of a “paradox,” as Easterbrook calls it, that progress leaves us all questioning the value of what we have, even as we value having it.

In the face of such contradictions, one starts to wonder whether it might not be preferable to opt out of the argument over America’s future altogether. Perhaps it’s healthier to emulate the people in de Botton’s chapter on “Bohemia” —the artists, scientists, and others inhabiting small apartments in the less affluent neighborhoods of New York or Boston, the ones who ignore our society’s constant championing of upward mobility and material acquisition. After all, de Botton writes, “A mature solution to status anxiety may be said to begin with the recognition that status is available from, and awarded by, a variety of different audiences—industrialists, bohemians, families, philosophers—and that our choice among them may be free and willed.”

Meet the Author

Sounds like a good alternative to the rat race. It also sounds very similar to Brooks’s celebration of “private dreams” and quilting clubs in the midst of sprawl—except that it requires one to abandon the type of community where most Americans now live, and to place self-fulfillment above the task of finding a way to make suburbs and the city alike more fulfilling and sustainable places for all inhabitants.

Is narcissism the only alternative to America’s cult of individualism? One hopes not. As far as social purgatories go, bowling alone sounds bad enough.