In cultures around the world, the arrival of a new year means more than the mere changing of the calendar. It is a time of cleansing and renewal, an opportunity to set past disappointments aside and to look ahead with optimism.
But let’s be honest: These are not the easiest of times in which to set aside fear in favor of optimism.
The financial meltdown of four or five years ago lingers like a hangover from a holiday party that went on much too long. The economy continues its slow recovery; Georgia’s unemployment rate last month was 8.5 percent, down a full percentage point from a year earlier and down almost two full percentage points from 2010. But it is sign of diminished expectations when a statewide jobless rate of 8.5 percent is considered evidence of progress.
And as too many of our fellow Americans know, those cold, impersonal numbers hide deep personal pain, loss and frustration. The American dream and its inherent promise that hard work will be rewarded no longer seem plausible for many, particularly the young. Only the foolish would try to deny that profound, unsettling changes are under way, and for one of the few times in our nation’s history, parents have cause to wonder whether their children and grandchildren will live in a world of reduced opportunity.
On the other hand, anger and disappointment can become self-fulfilling prophecies if indulged too long, and a backward-looking fixation on what used to be will blind you to what can be. That is as true for nations as it is for individuals. Previous generations of Americans faced times much more challenging than these and overcame them, and there is no reason to believe that we are not their legitimate and equally capable heirs.
At the moment, though, such context seems in short supply. In a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, just 40 percent of Americans describe themselves as hopeful about the course of world events in the coming year, while 56 percent described themselves as fearful. Unfortunately, a good part of that dismal showing can be explained as the aftermath of a deeply divisive, hard-fought election campaign that both political parties treated as a life-and-death struggle.
According to the Post poll, just 18 percent of Republicans report that they are hopeful about the course of world events in 2013, compared to 38 percent of independents and 61 percent of Democrats; 72 percent of Republicans describe themselves as fearful about what the next year will bring.
In the political world, such numbers have a way of compounding themselves. As Ronald Reagan knew better than anyone, and as the Democrats learned from Reagan the hard way, a party animated by the belief that this is a country in decline will find it difficult to rally others to its cause, creating a spiral that is hard to reverse.
It’s also important to remember that people of all political persuasions tend to exaggerate the importance of government and who runs it. Except in times of war, and at moments of economic crisis such as that of 2008-2009, government actually plays a relatively small role in the course of human events. At times we like to believe otherwise; we like to believe that acting through government, we exert direct control our own fate, but most of the that time, that simply isn’t true.
Faith in ourselves, each other and our country — or the lack of it — is far more important.
– Jay Bookman