Why are we in such a bad mood?

Published November 9, 2023

By Tom Campbell

In Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign he asked the voters one question: Are you better off today than you were four years ago? It’s worth asking now.
When Trump and Biden competed in 2020 our state and nation were in upheaval. The Coronavirus pandemic was rampant, unemployment was soaring, the US was in a recession and we were anxious about our economic, health and emotional futures.
Today, COVID has subsided and, since most of us have had the shots, the effects are much milder for those who catch it. Inflation, which peaked at 9 percent, has declined to 3.7 percent. We have a 3.8 percent unemployment rate, dramatically lower than 2020’s 14.7 percent or the average 5.7 percent between 1948 and 2023. Not only are we at statistically full employment but real wages, in inflation-adjusted dollars, are higher than in 2019. Workers are earning more, getting more time off and having greater work flexibility. Despite the chirping from the boo-birds, the recession they tried to talk us into hasn’t materialized.
Nowhere is the economic news better than in North Carolina. In September, our unemployment rate was 3.4 percent. NCSU Economist Mike Walden reports we have 7 percent more jobs than before the pandemic. North Carolina’s labor force participation rates are at 99% of their pre-Covid rates and could increase, as new economic development projects come online in record numbers. CNBC reported in July that, “business and the economy in the state have been on a tear since the pandemic, and the state has scarcely looked back.” For the second year in a row North Carolina was rated as the top state for business competitiveness. While growth is unevenly distributed throughout the state, indicators point to a strong economy with prospects for improvement.
With economic facts showing otherwise, why do so many people have what motivational speaker Zig Zigler called “stinkin’ thinkin’?
Several studies report people saying their current financial picture is good, however they believe the national economy is bad. The Edelman Trust Barometer reported only 40 percent of those surveyed believe their family will be better off in 5 years...a ten-point decline from 2022. For the first time in our history the younger generation doesn’t think they will be better off than their parents. 69 percent of respondents to an August Wall Street Journal survey stated the U.S. was headed in the wrong direction. The data indicates otherwise.
We have evolved from a country of optimists who believed our best days are ahead and there’s no challenge we can’t meet, to being a nation that has lost faith in our institutions and, more critically, in each other.
Why are we in such a funk?
I have identified four reasons for our pessimism. First, there are demagogues spewing hate and disruption for their own benefit. If they bad mouth loud enough and long enough many will listen and believe them. They don’t care about our well-being; they just want to improve their own.

Our news media has morphed from giving us the “who, what, when, where, why and how” of the news to spinning opinions, especially the 24/7 so-called cable “news” networks. It’s basically show business, with personalities droning on for hours on end about the same topics. To get higher ratings and readership (thus more ad dollars) the next quarter hour must be more outrageous, more bombastic and more partisan. And we make stars of the moderators.
The average adult spends 7 hours and 4 minutes per day, almost a third of the day, staring at a screen; 34 percent of that time comes from television, with social media occupying 10 percent. If we get any sleep or eat, we have little time left to interact with others, create experiences or think. We are addicted to our screens and self-select those outlets with which we agree.
Political partisanship has added to our unhappiness. Politics is now a zero-sum game: I can’t win unless you lose. If we don’t agree, then you are a crook, a thief, stupid or evil. We pick where we live, worship, eat and recreate based on our politics. Our political parties are even divisive. Republicans are either MAGA followers or those labeled “RINOs.” Democrats have their own cliques, including intellectual elites. We live in an echo chamber and want to neither hear, nor try to understand anyone who disagrees.
Finally, we suffer from a lack of leadership. I always believed that the right leaders would appear when most needed, but I can’t identify the political, business or civic leaders who have a vision for our future and are bold enough to speak out and lead us. Even if they did appear would we even trust them? In this environment would you put yourself out there? Yet we desperately need strong, positive, moral and inclusive leadership.
We are a better people that we are demonstrating.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965.  Contact him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.