Americans are optimistic locally, but more pessimistic nationally

Independent Center Contributor Gabriel Mitchell

One of the most curious data trends in American political life is the tension between the optimism of an American’s local and personal life and the typical pessimism, or at least uncertainty, concerning national political life.

Here’s an example from Ed Choice. When Americans were polled on their views regarding local education: “Among all respondents, 60 percent would assign their local schools an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade with only 8 percent assigning a ‘D’ or ‘F’ grade.”

However when it came to the national educational landscape: ‘[…] approval drops drastically—only 24 percent would assign an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade to public schools with 22 percent assigning a ‘D’ or ‘F.’”

Local optimism but national pessimism.

Here at the Independent Center, we’ve directly explored this tension. As always you can find a link to our polling data by signing up HERE.

We asked national voters two simple questions:

  1. “At this time next year, do you think that you will personally be better or worse off than you are today?”
  1. “At this time next year, do you think America will be better or worse off than it is today?”

As you might have guessed from the content of the introduction, a majority of Americans, regardless of demographic factors, felt they would be personally better off in the next year.

Specifically, 63% of voters that we polled felt they would be personally either much better off or somewhat better off in the next year.

Regarding whether America broadly would be better off, voters seemed far less optimistic. Though fortunately not overwhelmingly pessimistic. In this case, we see only 41% of voters feeling the nation will be better off in a year.

This tension itself is very interesting, but it’s the nuances of our data that we find layers of narratives.

For example, when we organize this data by political affiliation it appears Democrat voters are tipping the average scale of both subjects towards optimism. With 78% of them feeling they will be better off personally and 60% feeling the nation will be better off.

Isolating Independent and Republican voters, we observe a more pessimistic view of America’s future. Fortunately, a majority remain optimistic about their personal lives.

This data is reflected in studies by other intuitions. For instance, Pew Research in 2020 showed that Democrats were significantly more likely to expect partisan relations to improve.

How does age affect the data? 

While one might expect younger Americans, with 55% worried about climate change, to be more pessimistic, our data suggests the opposite. Younger voters tend to be more optimistic than their older counterparts on both political and personal fronts. However, it should be noted that this trend is not linear. The contrast is stark between voters under 30 and those over 49, but the group in between—older Millennials and younger Gen Xers—shows even more optimism regarding the national outlook.

Controlling for gender gives us another interesting layer of insight.

On the personal level, men and women are nearly identical in their levels of optimism about the future. Both genders have a matching 63% of voters who feel they will be personally better off. However, on the national political stage, men are more optimistic. This finding is intriguing given that our data also establishes that Democrats tend to be more optimistic, and data from the Center for American Women and Politics indicate that women are more likely to vote Democrat. This raises the possibility that the optimism of male Democrats could be offsetting the anxieties among women, suggesting a complex interplay between gender, political affiliation, and visions of the future.

Race plays a part as well. Over 50% of Americans of all races view their future with optimism. On the national topic, Americans of all races remain split.

When we look into the data we see an interesting racial divide regarding these predictions. White and Asian Americans tend to be more pessimistic than Black and Hispanic Americans. Black Americans are the most optimistic out of all the four racial groupings.

The reasons for this are unclear.

Investigating race on other polled topics may offer some hypotheses but these should not be taken as final answers.

With an overwhelming 71%, black voters self-identify as Democrats and they may share the general Democratic optimistic trend.

Anxieties over the immigration debate may be a factor with 23% of white voters viewing it as the most pressing issue but only 11% of black voters. Notably, our data suggest immigration is the second most important topic for all racial demographics, with economic issues being number one.

Further research is needed.

There are a lot of interesting facts and theories to explore with our data. Ultimately, one narrative stands out: we should find comfort in the general personal optimism that transcends politics, age, gender, and race. Life is not fundamentally about national politics; it’s about seeking happiness, being a good neighbor, and building a life worth living. As Americans, we are in this together.

Focusing on the local things we can control may be more important than the national picture. As many political theorists have noted, all politics is local. This might explain why, given our optimism about our personal lives, we can expect to see positive political outcomes follow. Caution is needed, but it’s comforting to think that Americans are overall optimistic.

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