Local control at the root of American optimism

Authored by Erin Norman

There is plenty in today’s world that could give a reasonable person anxiety about the future. Indeed, polling from Gallup conducted as Americans rang in 2023 suggests the country is pessimistic about political and international affairs, and follow up research from February shows similar feelings about the economy.

But polling from State Policy Network’s State Voices project shows an interesting twist on that data, highlighting that two out of three Americans are optimistic about their personal future, even if they are worried about the world around them. This data is backed up by an Ipsos poll in which 65% say the next year will be better despite 56% saying 2022 was a bad year for them.

The Optimistic American has been a classic stereotype for centuries since the Frenchman Alexander de Tocqueville wrote up his observations of spending a year in the young nation. He was struck by the “lively faith in the perfectibility of man…” His findings were confirmed over 150 years later by another outsider, Irish author Charles Handy who said “most Americans seem to believe that the future can be better and that they are responsible for doing their best to make it that way.” 

Portrait of Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau (1850), at the Palace of Versailles. (Public Domain)

Researchers have come up with many theories as to why Americans are more optimistic than most of the world. Some research ties American optimism to the individual independence ingrained into our culture that gives people a sense of power to determine their own future. Indeed, Americans largely believe most people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard and just 16% say that luck plays a bigger role than hard work in a personal wealth.

Another reason Americans feel a sense of control over their own future is our nation’s system of self-governance that is truly foreign in other places. On his visit two centuries ago, de Tocqueville was surprised by the number of people active in public affairs and took extensive notes detailing how Americans worked together on local projects and became heavily involved in town meetings. American belief in self-determination and heavy civic involvement goes hand-in-hand – we are comfortable, if not conditioned, to be the change we want to see in our broader society. But if government isolates itself from the people who are supposed to control it, citizen participation falls off and the associated optimism starts to disappear.

Americans today are pessimistic about the things controlled and directed by Washington, DC – the nation’s economy, international relations, the federal budget – and things they incorrectly perceive to be up to the federal government to sort out such as healthcare. The percentage of Americans who trust in the federal government has been consistently under 20% for much of the last 12 months. But SPN State Voices polling shows that while just 49% are optimistic about the nation’s future, 60% are optimistic about their state’s future, much closer to the 65% optimistic about their own future. Big, far away government produces skepticism while more locally controlled government generates hopefulness on par with the optimism Americans have about their own personal ability to work hard and generate a better life. These aren’t political platitudes from conservatives –the data show this is how American people actually feel.

There is no question people prefer and have more faith in local government. The challenge is to find a way to bring more functions of government down from the federal level. Some states are stepping up to assert their right to self-rule. Florida and Tennessee have rejected federal funding and the attached rules and regulations that come with it while similar proposals are being considered in Utah and Oklahoma. This is just the beginning.

Americans have a long history of optimism that stems from their unique ability to govern themselves in their communities. Where that power is diminished, pessimism about the future seeps in. States, and the localities within them, must stand up to the federal government and reclaim their ability to self-govern if American optimism, and the benefits it produces, are to endure.

Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and senior messaging strategist at the State Policy Network, which focuses on free-market solutions to policy challenges.

Authored by:Erin Norman


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