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Peggy Noonan Warns That America Might “Boil Over”

If you’ve been feeling like this country’s heading down a dangerous path (and, we don’t mean a socialist one), you’re not alone. Peggy Noonan feels the same way — and writes about it in today’s Wall Street Journal column, “America Is at Risk of Boiling Over.”

Noonan says the nation’s problems have been growing for a long time, but now there is an added aspect to those problems. And though it’s one that’s been voiced before, it’s worth noting:

The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did. This is a huge break with the past, with assumptions and traditions that shaped us.

The thought, “my kids will have it better,” is what kept Americans “pulling on their boots in the morning.” They’ll be better educated, make more money, and move up in society. Noonan laments that no longer is this the case.

We live in an age of consumption and abundance, but Noonan writes that parents fear they are losing something, that something “has stopped”:

…they look around, follow the political stories and debates, and deep down they think their children will live in a more limited country, that jobs won’t be made at a great enough pace, that taxes—too many people in the cart, not enough pulling it—will dishearten them, that the effects of 30 years of a low, sad culture will leave the whole country messed up. And then there is the world: nuts with nukes, etc.

Even optimists think that their children may have it “almost as good,” she writes.

What’s worse, according to Noonan, is that our politicians don’t seem to realize how the people feel — or, if they do, they certainly aren’t showing it. First noticing the trend in the 1980s, she says the gap has never been wider — in fact, it’s a chasm:

In Washington they don’t seem to be looking around and thinking, Hmmm, this nation is in trouble, it needs help. They’re thinking something else. I’m not sure they understand the American Dream itself needs a boost, needs encouragement and protection.

Emphasis hers. Politicians are keeping things at a “high boil” at a time “when people are already in about as much hot water as they can take.” Ouch. Noonan points to the immigration debate as an example of how the Washington thought process differs from that of We the People:

The point of view of our thought leaders is, in general, that borders that are essentially open are good, or not so bad. The point of view of those on the ground who are anxious about our nation’s future, however, is different, more like: “We live in a welfare state and we’ve just expanded health care. Unemployment’s up. Could we sort of calm down, stop illegal immigration, and absorb what we’ve got?”

While some are likely to disagree with how Noonan defines the two different perspectives, it’s hard to refute that a discrepancy exists. She concludes by saying that when “adults of a great nation feel long-term pessimism, it only makes matters worse when those in authority take actions that reveal their detachment from the concerns—even from the essential nature—of their fellow citizens.” It makes the citizens feel powerless. And pessimism and powerlessness don’t play nicely with each other.

Noonan’s overarching argument is a valid one. There is an evident discontent and it’s plausible that the crisis in 2008 has exemplified it. In that sense, we shouldn’t be surprised that polarizing movements like the Tea Party — whose radical aspects seem to gain more attention than its more credible ideas —  have gained supporters that seem to only be increasing in numbers. If the people really do feel so helpless and pessimistic, then it makes sense that they would try to find solace in emerging movements that diverge from the norm.

This isn’t new, and it can have various results. True uproar has caused revolutions across the globe. But what we see today is movements that tout increasingly extreme stances and contribute to an existing polarized climate. (Whether those movements propose good or bad policy changes is a different debate for another day). People of opposing views shout, but don’t listen — and thus, any real accomplishments are few and far between. And then doesn’t this just add to the pessimism and powerlessness that Noonan says exists? A recent Gallup poll shows that Americans have more confidence in big business and banks, than they do in Congress. There is clearly a problem — and it’s larger than any one political party.

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