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Is this the end of American optimism?

Facing a seemingly endless pandemic and an election that has little hope of going smoothly, we’re all on a grim, existential roller coaster now.

An illustration depicts a person standing on the edge of dominoes. Getty Images

It’s hard to remember now, but 2020 — a year, a meme, an interminable parade of grief — opened with a sense of cautious optimism. US unemployment was at a record low and consumer confidence was high. Hollywood had just invested almost $2 billion in a “revolutionary” new streaming platform called Quibi; Future and Drake’s new single “Life is Good” was charting; and Tokyo was ready to host the summer Olympics. Even for those still feeling wary of the future, an impending US presidential election presented an opportunity for political change.

But the coronavirus pandemic has quickly turned the world inside out, intersecting with a laundry list of other anxiety-inducing developments, including accelerating climate change and a record-scorching California wildfire season; police brutality exemplified by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others; and growing fears of voter suppression or intimidation in the run-up to an election that, many argue, will shape American democracy itself.

This spring, unemployment reached a record high, and for many, government relief quickly ran out. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in September concluded “an era of faith in the courts,” according to the Atlantic. To top it all off, we still don’t have any clue when — or if — the pandemic will end. Even if there is a vaccine, a growing number of Americans, wary of the rapid pace of development, say they will refuse to be innoculated.

As people try to endure their unwilling ride on this grim existential rollercoaster, optimism — the belief that somehow, everything will turn out okay — is on the wane.

Between June and August, the percentage of Americans feeling optimistic about the rest of 2020 dropped precipitously, from 54 percent to 46 percent, according to a survey from market research firm YouGov. In its wake, we’ve seen the rise of nihilistic, cynical, and pessimistic perspectives that increasingly seem like the most rational (and, perhaps, most psychologically protective) response to a world in crisis.

The consequences of all this uncertainty are clear: mental health issues, substance use, and reported thoughts of suicide have recently soared, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For Gen Z, a demographic that hasn’t known a world without peril, nihilism is already de rigueur. It takes many forms, from teen climate activist Greta Thunberg’s defense of pessimism to K-pop star Kim Han-bin’s tattoo of the word “nihilism” across his left pec. But in this moment, a sense of meaninglessness knows no generational bounds.

The cheery insistence that the environment was “healing” as the world entered lockdown was served with a side of darkness — the conviction that, ecologically, humans “are the virus.” This summer, actress Reese Witherspoon memed her most famous characters into a calendar of anguish: By June, Elle Woods’s toothy grin gives way to the disorientation of Wild and stays there — time as frozen as a screengrab. And Twitter users became part of an ongoing effort to ridicule the phrase “I hope this email finds you well” into oblivion.

When all signs point to catastrophe, believing in a better tomorrow can seem delusional, especially when unfounded optimism might be fueling anti-mask scofflaws convinced the coronavirus will magically disappear, or isn’t that bad to begin with. And when trauma is this widespread — and the resulting pain is largely unacknowledged by the government — it’s a common symptom to feel that the future is foreshortened.

“There is a survival aspect to this,” says Mary Alvord, a psychologist specializing in resilience. “We’re thinking about, how are we going to get to the next day?”

As we turn to our collective crystal ball for comfort, we find it clouded by killer microbes, wildfire smoke, and malaise. Though many people still get out of bed and, in inspired fits, even volunteer to work the polls or test a Covid-19 trial vaccine, every act is freighted with the question of whether individual action still matters.

Nowhere is this heavy sense of foreboding more prominent than in politics. Many Americans perceived the 2016 election polls as an epic failure after they almost universally indicated a Clinton win. This time around, there’s little trust in the data, even among some industry wonks. “National polls are absolutely, utterly useless and worthless,” Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis told Vanity Fair. The notion that Biden is in the lead, he added, “puts out a false narrative that gives people either a false sense of security or a false sense of dread.”

The Republican Party and the Trump administration have capitalized on the dread many Americans already feel with efforts aimed at voter suppression and, increasingly, voter depression — a phrase that works on several levels, but technically means tactics intended to convince likely voters there’s no point in even casting a ballot.

From the controversy around the United States Postal Service to the threat of impending militia violence, many people are experiencing a sense of “electoral fatalism,” Sekou Franklin, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University, told Vox. “I want my vote to count so badly, but I’m really not sure it’s going to. And it’s actually frightening me,” Anna Headley, a voter in Pennsylvania, told the Washington Post. At that point, her ballot had been sitting unopened for two weeks. “I keep looking at it as if it’s a bomb.”

This year “has revealed a whole raft of failures — of politics, of institutions, of ideals — that did not emerge with the pandemic, but have been brought into starker relief by it,” Ansgar Allen, author of a short history of cynicism, told Vox via email. “It has provided plenty of reason to be cynical, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

“Cynicism can perform a conservative function, as an excuse for inaction, as a reason not to bother to improve things,” Allen adds. “But it can also perform a disruptive function, tearing down the veil on false promises and conceits.” It all depends on what we do next.

Cultures have experienced the end of the world — or something like it — before: The fall of the Roman Empire, the Black Death, the rapid depopulation of the New World by European disease and violence, and two world wars are just a few of the historical calamities that have pushed societies to the brink.

For most of human history, apocalypse was a local phenomenon — a threat to a specific place or population. But advances in science have scaled our existential anxieties to the species level, writes Thomas Moynihan in his new book, X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction.

In the 1720s, for example, people began to think of Homo sapiens in a “global aggregate.” By the 1770s, just as interstellar risks like asteroids came into focus, scientists began to understand that humans are critically dependent on earthly environments. In the 1840s, fearing overpopulation and the depletion of natural resources, writers began to contemplate “omnicide” — the extinction of our species spurred by our own actions. More recent technological developments have created their own perils, from nuclear war to runaway climate change. Now, each apocalypse threatens to wipe all of us out at once.

At the same time, every contemporary crisis is perceived as a harbinger of what is to come: The coronavirus is emblematic of all future potential pandemics, and wildfire season is representative of every coming flame. So far, our responses haven’t measured up. We’ve met a global mental health crisis with sourdough and self-care tips, and epic burns with local firefighting but no systemic challenge to the carbon economy. This leaves many people stuck in what the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, an art project, calls “shadowtime”: an “acute consciousness of the possibility that the near future will be drastically different than the present.”

One appealing response is to stick our heads in the sand, says Alvord, the psychologist and co-author of several books, including Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens. “Avoidance is very powerful,” she says. “If we [face an issue] head-on and we commit to doing something, we take a risk.” In this sense, refusing to acknowledge a problem can feel protective, even if it’s really making the issue worse.

When avoidance isn’t possible, catastrophizing — imagining the worst of all possible futures — can feel pretty good. “There’s almost a comfort in thinking about the worst-case scenario and it not happening,” Alvord says. If you run through enough hypotheticals, and adopt a pessimistic worldview, it starts to feel like nothing can catch you by surprise again.

Kaitlyn Creasy, a philosopher at California State University, San Bernardino, studies Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who identified nihilism in his own time — the perspective that life is meaningless. When things still don’t work out the way we want them to, we may tell ourselves they never really mattered, she says. This can manifest as things like burnout — a state of profound mental and physical exhaustion, usually triggered by prolonged stress.

Even when people actively engage with the world, they are often looking for simple solutions, says Nolen Gertz, a philosopher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Whether it’s Joe Biden, or Anthony Fauci, or even Claudia Conway, Gertz argues that many Americans are seeking a Messiah — the “adults in the room” who can fix everything and absolve us of our individual responsibility. But a complacent approach is what created a sense of crisis in the first place.

Many of the issues we face today predated the pandemic. But some Americans have ignored the voices of marginalized groups, who have been sounding the alarm on voter suppression and police brutality for decades, and the voices of scientists and other experts, who warned that a pandemic was inevitable. These issues have our attention now, but “it’s important for people to know, post-2020, we still have a struggle on our hands,” says Franklin, the political scientist.

In this sense, waning optimism may not be such a bad thing, especially if it’s replaced by determination.

In times of crisis, cultures have often turned to religion and spirituality. Jacqueline Mattis, a psychologist at Rutgers, researches the role of religion in the lives of African Americans. In Black liberation theology, she says, faith is grounded in “real issues like freedom and what it means to care and forgive in the real world.” Adherents acknowledge oppression, while actively working against it, maintaining not just optimism, but hope, which Mattis defines as “optimism with a plan.”

Hope exists outside of faith traditions, too, says David Newheiser, a research fellow in religion and theology at Australian Catholic University and the author of Hope in a Secular Age. It is a core component of many Americans’ conceptions of democracy as an ideal toward which we must continually strive.

But the easy, effervescent feeling of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign — with its “Yes we can” slogan and Shepard Fairey “Hope” posters — “isn’t robust enough to do what we need to do” now, Newheiser says. Trying to revive it won’t work. Instead, he says, we must invest in hope as a “deep, dark, critical” practice that propels us forward in moments of pessimism.

Newheiser believes the capacity for hope is in each of us, but says that it is within communities of mutual support and shared goals that hope — that optimism with a plan — is sustained. Many people know this intuitively, as evidenced by the recent swell in participation in mutual aid networks and other ecosystems of care that have blossomed in the pandemic. Now we have an opportunity to maintain these practices, even if — or when — our sense of optimism returns.

Gertz, the philosopher, knows 2020 is a year few will remember fondly, but he believes we can carry its lessons into the future. “It’s important to not get used to the world coming to an end,” he says. Perhaps, he says, we need to “get used to the idea that there are things we can all do all the time to save each other’s lives.”

Eleanor Cummins reports on the intersection of science and popular culture. She’s a former assistant editor at Popular Science and writes a newsletter about death. She previously wrote about the “death-positive generation” and the new political family for The Highlight.

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