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Despite everything, America’s optimism is undaunted

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Jonathan Eadie walks past three American flags he installed on the pier at Coney Island during the current coronavirus outbreak, on Memorial Day weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2020, in New York.

Associated Press

As I write this, only six months remain until Christmas. And by the time you read this, chances are it will be even less.

How’s that for optimism in a time of distress?

Of course, no one knows today what Christmas will look like, but if you’re like most people, I’m guessing you have high hopes for a glorious holiday. In fact, you probably believe deep down we’ll have a vaccine by then for COVID-19 and Santa’s beard won’t have to double as a mask.

That may be because Americans tend toward optimism. 

Toni Hargis of the BBC described it like this a few years ago: She was on a trip to Boston with a group that has half English and half American. They were late for a tour on one of those duck boats that can travel on land and sea.

As she recalled it, the attitude differences were hilarious. “Brits: ‘There’s no point in running, it’ll have gone by now.’ Americans: ‘No, let’s just run and see.’ And sure enough, the darn duck was itself running late and we had more than enough time.”

So, how are you feeling about things right now? Has the metaphorical duck sailed and left you feeling stranded, or are you still running?

A YouGov survey found that in December 2019, around last Christmas, 58% of Americans said they felt optimistic about 2020. 

As the survey site notes, this was before COVID-19, the stock market crash, mass street protests demanding police reforms, and the first American sighting of murder hornets.

Any one of those might be enough to make people shrink in horror and long for happier days. So when pollsters floated the same question today, only asking people how they felt about the rest of 2020, 54% said they felt optimistic. 

So, we lost 4%. I’m sure they’ll come back once the daily coronavirus death tolls stop cluttering our lives.

That wasn’t the only poll to capture how we’re feeling. Gallup regularly asks people to describe whether they felt certain negative or positive emotions the day before. Sure enough, when protests took center stage during the first week of June, the negative emotions rose. The percentage of people feeling anger went from 25% to 38%. Sadness saw a similar surge. Those reporting feelings of happiness mixed in with all that fell from 72% to 69%.

But by the week of June 8-14, people had rebounded. The emotions had reset to pre-protest levels. Those feeling happiness rose to 73%.

None of this should be interpreted as indications that the nation’s current problems aren’t difficult, or that they won’t take a lot of hard effort to fix. America’s optimism is born of a contentious past, including a Civil War and civil rights clashes that serve as a pretext to today’s struggles for equal rights under the law. 

Maybe that makes it even more remarkable that problems don’t seem to define us as much as the stubborn belief that they can be solved.

Which brings me to the latest poll from Washington Post-Ipsos, on the attitude of Black Americans. It found that this group overwhelmingly supports the protests for racial justice (91%), while a large majority (81%) believe white Americans don’t understand the level of discrimination they encounter.

However, 89% of Black Americans said they think protests are an effective way to improve how police treat them, and more than half, 54%, said they were optimistic things will improve in coming years.

That was considerably less than the percentage of Americans overall who felt the same way (69%), but it is remarkable considering how long the nation has grappled with this problem.

Yes, the challenges of today will surely tax our best thinking. Despite current pressures, change may come much slower than many would like. But without an undaunted optimism about the future, they can never come. Without belief, there would be no sense in trying.

I’m glad surveys are still finding most Americans undaunted in their belief in a better tomorrow, even if in some demographics it’s barely a majority. It means there is a purpose to movements for change and a hope attached to all those test tubes searching for a vaccine, just as surely as we know Christmas Day will come again in less than six months, viruses, protests, earthquakes and murder hornets notwithstanding,