The peril of low expectations
Settling for less may be good for the psyche, but it's bad for the nation
“Good enough” isn’t actually good enough for America. Too much is at stake. (Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash)
Thank goodness there was a good guy with a gun handy, we’re being told, or else the latest mass shooting, at a mall just outside Indianapolis, would have left more than three people dead, not including the perpetrator. Actually, it’s not really the latest mass shooting, only the one that was widely reported: In the first five days afterwards, there were six more shootings with multiple victims across the country, leaving 25 more victims. That’s the way it is in America nowadays.
The Greenwood Park Mall is near the leafy college campus where my parents met, and just 20 minutes by car from the cottage on a winding drive where they spent their last years together. It’s a suburban area surrounded by rich farmland, the mall designed to be familiar enough that practically anybody might feel comfortable going about the business of their daily lives there.
But people felt comfortable at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, too, before 10 people were killed by a gunman there in May, and people weren’t on their guard at the 4th of July parade in Highland Park, Ill., where seven people were shot dead and dozens more wounded, and, of course, we presume the children in Uvalde, Tex., weren’t afraid for their lives when they showed up for school on that day in the spring when 19 fourth graders and two teachers were slaughtered.
It should go without saying that we shouldn’t have to depend upon a passerby packing a pistol to assure our safety in a suburban shopping mall, or anywhere else. Nor should we settle into tolerating a mass shooting every week, which is the reality of 2022 in America.1 We should expect better in our country — starting with meaningful steps to reduce the arsenal of firearms in unsafe hands. But we can’t expect better just now, it seems, though not many years ago, we would have.
It isn’t only in our sense of physical security that the expectations of Americans have dropped so drastically, though. We are witnessing, broadly, an Age of Diminished Expectations — a description I was pretty proud of concocting, until I learned that it was the title of a 1990 book about the nation’s rising wealth gap by the eminent economist Paul Krugman.2 What was unsettling in his telling three decades ago is tragically more widespread now, encompassing so many more elements of our lives.
Young adults can no longer expect to be more financially secure than their parents, Krugman noted, because of political choices that have rewarded the wealthy at the expense of America’s shrinking middle class. That was true when Krugman wrote it, but this is also true now: Most of us likewise can’t expect, as we once did, that we won’t be inundated by floods or scorched by drought, because as a nation we haven’t adequately fought human-induced climate change. And this: We’re unable to expect the protection of equal rights for all our fellow citizens, because the Trump-packed Supreme Court seems headed toward reimposing the legalized dominance of white heterosexual men in our society, at intolerable cost to people of color, women and people who aren’t straight. And this: We surely can’t expect anymore, as we once did, that our political leaders will behave with fairness and decency, because so many of them have shown little inclination to do so — and, anyway, so many of our fellow citizens are seduced by shameless demagogues willing to sacrifice democracy for power that there’s little to gain by displays of good character in politics.
You could argue that it’s simply sensible to recognize the reality of our diminished circumstance as a nation at a time when the world has grown so complex. In business, that notion is common: A generation of leaders has embraced the value of celebrating even limited success, or, as Voltaire is supposed to have suggested, not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. That’s probably a useful strategy in an era of technology that allows new iterations of products to quickly replace whatever isn’t quite up to snuff. A wise old friend displayed a sign next to his desk: “When all else fails, lower your standards.” So what’s so bad about that?
Besides, there is a current among psychologists suggesting that we all might be more able to find peace of mind by sort of grading our expectations on a curve. As the social theorist Barry Schwartz argued in 2004 in The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, people who are “maximizers,” trying to get the most out of life, are often less happy than “satisficers,” who are content with good-enough results.3 Strivers can be floppers.
Schwartz wrote that learning to accept “good enough” makes people happier, rather famously urging, “No matter what you can afford, save great wine for special occasions.”
What is healthy for our unsettled psyches, though, isn’t necessarily good for our troubled nation. If too many citizens lose their ambition to reach for the sky, they will choose mediocre leaders, who will drag down the nation’s ambitions. I might argue that we have witnessed that, in fact.
And a nation that gives up on solving big problems can’t hope to lead us to a more secure world. When Al Franken was still a Saturday Night Live cast member, he captured the notion through his hapless character Stuart Smalley, who explained, “Only the mediocre are always at their best.”4 As any coach who has tallied a winning season will explain, a team cannot rise above mediocrity unless it believes that it can.
Right now, Americans are about to settle on the notion that we can’t move much beyond mediocrity in any effort to solve key social problems. What’s at risk in that mindset is nothing less than what’s often called the American Dream, a concept that was popularized by the Pulitzer-winning historian James Truslow Adams in the depths of the Great Depression.
Adams wrote of “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone,” importantly stressing that he wasn’t referring mainly to financial gain, but to “a genuine individual search and striving for the abiding values of life… and for the common man to rise to full stature” in the free realms of “communal spiritual and intellectual life.” Adams believed deeply in the value of liberal education, and he was ahead of the broader society in his insistence that the American dream must be understood to apply to women as well as to men, to people of color as well as to the dominant white culture and to people whose financial status might seem at first hopeless.5
“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely,” he wrote in 1931, “but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” That is, the American Dream was for all.
If you agree with that, consider this: There’s too much at stake for all of us to allow any of us to accept the luxury of settling into the belief that we can do no better in the future than we’re doing right now. In the face of a reactionary Supreme Court majority, a Congress hobbled by a minority’s ability to block any progress and a bitterly divided electorate, it’s tempting to sit back in shock and chagrin, and hope that maybe somebody else can make things better. But that’s like figuring that a stranger with a gun is the only solution to the gun epidemic: It’s not really a solution, because it’s unlikely to occur, and fraught with danger if it does.
This is no time to embrace low expectations and to tolerate the carnage in our political system and to American society more generally. Save the good wine, maybe, but don’t settle for mediocrity in the fight to restore the real American Dream. Pour your all into it.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Pueblo, Colo. (The Pueblo Chieftain, chieftain.com)
Augusta, Ga. (The Augusta Chronicle, augustachronicle.com)
Great Falls, Mont. (Great Falls Tribune, greatfallstribune.com)
Columbus, Ohio (The Columbus Dispatch, dispatch.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Reluctance to expand weed business options
Alongside Washington state, Colorado was first to legalize recreational marijuana sales, in 2012. Now there are proposals to expand the retail options for weed businesses, but localities are showing reluctance to step up. In Pueblo, for example, proposals to allow retail delivery and on-site consumption of weed have gotten a cold shoulder from city officials, according to reporting by Anna Lynn Winfrey in The Pueblo Chieftain. Some see the option as aiding public safety. “I think we're deluding ourselves if we think that people are not consuming it publicly, or they're not going to consume it in their cars when they buy it in Pueblo, so these hospitality suites were an alternative,” one city council member said.
Criminal migrant traffickers allegedly bribed Georgia officials
A federal investigation has led to charges against 28 people allegedly involved in farm labor trafficking, according to reporting in The Augusta Chronicle and other Gannett newspapers, but new testimony suggests that there may be other probe targets: George state officials. An agent responding to a prosecutor’s question in a sentencing hearing recently affirmed that Georgia Department of Labor officials were paid bribes in connection with housing permits for migrant laborers — though no officials have yet been charged. Responding to a reporter’s question, a state spokeswoman said no investigation into the allegation had been launched by the state agency. “What do you want us to ask? ‘Did y’all take bribes?’ ” the spokeswoman said to the reporter.
Kids suing state over environmental laws
Montana is interfering with a constitutional right — specifically, the health, safety and happiness of young people — by fostering fossil fuels as its primary energy source, a lawsuit filed by 16 children and young adults asserts. Nick Ehli of the nonprofit Kaiser Health News reports in the Great Falls Tribune that the youngsters, ages 2 to 18 when the suit was filed in 2020, have recently won arguments in appellate courts so that the case seems headed for trial. “A win in Montana could very well have implications throughout the country and potentially even the world,” said an attorney for Our Children’s Trust, which is representing the young plaintiffs.
Artificial insemination aims to protect polar bears
As a result of human-caused climate change, perhaps only 20,000 Arctic polar bears survive in the wild — and that population is expected to drop by two-thirds by 2050, as their natural habitat warms. So some zoos are undertaking steps to try to strengthen the species’ chance of survival. At the Columbus Zoo, Dean Narciso reports in The Columbus Dispatch, twin 16-year-old polar bears have been artificially inseminated. It’s a relatively new procedure tried fewer than there dozen times around the world, never producing a cub.
Here’s an encouraging note from Washington. (And when was the last time you read that anywhere?)
The outspoken admiration of liberals in recent weeks for the very conservative Republican representative in Congress from Wyoming suggests that many Americans are willing to look beyond labels, and to appreciate meaningful dialogue and honorable service in politics. Of course, I’m referring to the praise you’re seeing in social media, and hearing in conversation, for Liz Cheney, who has relentlessly pursued the truth in the hearings of the congressional Jan. 6 insurrection investigation.
“Congratulations and thanks, Liz Cheney. You honored the room and our moment,” wrote one of my old college friends, a committed liberal activist since Frances “Sissy” Farenthold’s campaign for Texas governor in 1972.
Of course, the work of Cheney on the select committee targets Donald Trump, so it’s natural that a Democrat would find it admirable. But it’s also true that Cheney was pursuing the truth, not a vendetta. And while I don’t imagine my liberal friends would ever vote for someone with Liz Cheney’s record of support for mainstream conservative ideas, if it were to come to that, it’s nevertheless cause for hope that people can see beyond partisanship to admire traits of character, when it is precisely character that is often called into question by political opponents these days.
It would be refreshing to see any similar sign of appreciation for those traits coming from the right. Readers, have you seen examples of generous nonpartisanship? It’s lovely to consider. It keeps hope alive.
Thanks for reading this week. And thank you for joining me as I write from here, Upstate America, about *our common ground, our love for this great country.