Americans, and Idahoans, have much to be proud of.  But, we are pretty cynical when it comes to the state of our country, despite our many and deep strengths. 

First, let’s talk about some of the positives. 

The United States economy is by far the largest in the world. According to the International Monetary Fund for 2014, the top 10 national economies were:

World’s Top 10 Economies in 2014
Rank Country Gross Domestic Product
1 United States 17.35 trillion dollars
2 China 10.36 trillion dollars
3 Japan 4.60 trillion dollars
4 Germany 3.87 trillion dollars
5 United Kingdom 2.95 trillion dollars
6 France 2.83 trillion dollars
7 Brazil 2.37 trillion dollars
8 Italy 2.15 trillion dollars
9 India 2.05 trillion dollars
10 Russia 1.86 trillion dollars

Source: International Monetary Fund

Despite having 5% of the world’s population we generate a staggering 25% of the economic output. China is experiencing significant economic growth. But, even if they were to catch us (which I will think will become increasingly hard as their population rapidly ages), they still would spread their economy over a very large population, meaning their per capita income is likely to remain a fraction of that held by individual Americans. 

Our technological innovations lead the world.  What are the dominant technology firms?  Apple. Google. Microsoft. Which aircraft company drives the airline market?  Boeing.  Who develops most of the innovative drugs?  American pharmaceutical companies.  Where is most of the internet innovation occurring?  The United States.  I wouldn’t trade places with anyone in the world when it comes business success and technological prowess.

Our military is the most feared and effective in the world.  Our potential adversaries, whether China or ISIS or North Korea, try to find ways to poke us in the eye without directly confronting our forces.  No other country can project power like the American Navy or Air Force.  Our Army in unbeaten in direct conflict in many decades.

American culture – whether music, movies or television – can be found in the smallest developing world village and in Seoul, Sydney, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Santiago and Nairobi.

We do have some significant issues:  Our national debt, our challenges to increase economic growth, preparing young people for the work force, etc.  But, we still have it pretty good.

But most Americans, despite our strengths, are pretty sour on the direction of our country.

I’ve often mentioned that the website Real Clear Politics is invaluable for anyone interested in politics and polls (you can view the site here).

One of the most interesting things the site does is compile and average polls.  One question I’ve watched for years is the Real Clear Politics average of the question of whether Americans approve or disapprove of the direction of the United States.  The latest results show that by better than 2-1, specifically by a substantial 28.4% to 62.7%, U.S. respondents disapprove of the direction of our country. 

You might think that is simply disapproval of Obama policies like health care or foreign policy.  But, there is more to the story than that.

During the previous Bush administration, the numbers were even worse (except for a blip centered around 9/11).  In fact, the last time a majority of Americans were satisfied with the direction of the country was in the Clinton administration and then only narrowly and only for a limited period of time.  Our people since the 1960s have generally thought the direction of our country was downward.

Why are Americans so cynical?  Is it because government is incompetent or destructive?  Or, is the issue economic stress or concern over societal issues?  Might it be driven by concern over the United States’ status in the world?  Probably all of these concerns (and many more) are factors.

I’ve spent some time digging through some research put out by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan organization that tracks the attitudes of Americans over time.  Here are a few observations.

Americans today are highly distrustful of government.   But, that has not always been so.  In 1964, under President Johnson, 77% of Americans trusted their government to generally do the right thing, despite the challenges of the Civil Rights movement and the Great Society (which I was not a fan of).  But, that was the high point of the Johnson administration’s standing with the American people.  After 1964, trust in government declined sharply and then turned sharply negative in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, finally bottoming out at 25% in early 1980 under President Carter.

Under Reagan, Americans trust in government never entered positive territory but did rise into the 40% range.  Under the first Pres. Bush, the numbers peaked in the Gulf War, but generally trended down and went even lower in the first four years of the Clinton administration, reaching a low point of only 19% trusting government in 1994.

The trust number moved up the rest of Clinton’s time in office, peaked under George W. Bush during aftermath of 9/11 and then tumbled down.  Under Obama, the trust number has been generally below 25%.

Economic uncertainty is a clearly a factor.  Consumer confidence peaked in the Reagan and Clinton administrations but had otherwise been relatively low since.  Americans no longer can count on staying with a single employer for life.  The cost of health care, student loans and the cost of living put stress on many.

Family life is more chaotic with many Americans living outside of marriage, often single for lengthy periods.  Affiliation with religious groups has diminished.

But the trend for all societal numbers is not negative.  Crime statistics have generally improved.  Divorce is down.  Abortions have peaked.  Educational achievement has increased substantially.

There are also intangibles.  Every four years we get to pick a new president and every two years reconfigure Congress. We choose our governor, the composition of the Legislature and city and county government leaders.  While it is difficult to accomplish anything in our system of checks and balances, it is also hard for an elected official to impose their will without widespread support.  Our system of government is remarkably stable over time.  We hand over power to our election victors in quiet ceremonies, not by use of military force as is common elsewhere.

As we get close to Thanksgiving, maybe it is time to realize at least some of the positives associated with the United States.

My personal attitude is that, while I don’t agree with everything occurring today, I am still glad to be a U.S. Citizen and I am proud to be an Idaho resident by choice.  I don’t want to live anywhere else.

What about you?

Steve Taggart is an Idaho Falls attorney specializing in bankruptcy (www.MaynesTaggart.com).  He has an extensive background in politics and public policy.  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..