Americans are more likely to think the US is heading in the right direction since Donald Trump’s election. Why?

The poll results are extraordinary: the proportion of Americans who thought the country was ‘heading in the right direction’ rose sharply when Donald Trump became president of the US, while the proportion who thought it was ‘off on the wrong track’ dropped. The numbers were even at about 50%.

Negative perceptions have increased again since, but remain lower than during the Obama presidency. In September 2010, the earliest US data in the recent Ipsos report, ‘What worries the world’, about 70% thought the US was on the wrong track, 30% that it was heading in the right direction. In September 2018, the ratio was about 60% ‘wrong track’ to 40% ‘the right direction’ – about the same as the world average.

The US findings are at odds with so much of the media commentary about Trump, especially in the liberal media: his loss of the popular vote, the gerrymandering, the Russian interference, his low approval rating, the sustained criticism of him in the mainstream media. What can explain the trends? I want to offer one explanation, based on a social, not political, analysis; there may be others.

The answers we get in survey questions depend critically on their wording. In this case the question was not asking anything about the presidency, Trump and his actions and utterances. It asked Americans, ‘Generally speaking, would you say things in this country are heading in the right direction, or are they off on the wrong track?’

I have long argued that people’s concerns about modern life and the future have been poorly reflected in politics, and it is this that lies behind the unease and disenchantment in the electorate, not just the conduct of politicians and the merits of specific policies. We need to widen and deepen political debate and discussion to address what I called in a 2007 book chapter the ‘demise of the official future’: the loss of faith in the future that governments promise, and on which they base their policies.

Put simply, the official future is one constructed around notions of material progress, economic growth and scientific and technological fixes to the challenges we face. It is increasingly being challenged – except in politics – by sustainable development as a framework for thinking about human betterment. Sustainable development does not accord economic growth overriding priority. Instead, it seeks a better balance and integration of social, environmental and economic goals and objectives to produce a high, equitable and enduring quality of life.

We can also characterise the shift as replacing an outdated industrial metaphor of progress as a pipeline – pump more wealth in one end and more wellbeing flows out the other – with an ecological metaphor of progress as an evolving ecosystem such as a rainforest – reflecting the reality that the processes that drive social systems are complex, dynamic and diffuse.

I wrote that the demise of the official future was causing a cascade of consequences because our visions of the future are woven into the stories we create to make sense and meaning of our lives. This ‘storying’ is important in linking individuals to a broader social or collective narrative, and affects both our own personal wellbeing (by enhancing our sense of belonging, identity and agency, for example), and societal functioning (by engaging us in the shared task of working for a better future).

However, elections have rarely, if ever, been about people’s deep desires for a better life and concerns about the future. Increasingly, they are manipulated through the use of sophisticated marketing tactics and social media to focus on a few, often contrived, issues. Trust in government and other ‘official’ institutions is eroded. As this disconnect deepens and governments become more detached from the electorate, political incompetence and corruption grow; critical pathways for translating personal choices and preferences into social outcomes are closed off.

It may even be that we are moving between paradigms depending on circumstances and occasions. Asked about social directions and preferred futures, we inhabit a new worldview defined by sustainability. When it comes to voting in elections, we choose the old paradigm of material progress because we are aware that this is the framework within which government operates. Democracy is jeopardised because it continues to function in a paradigm that now alienates the people.

This brings us back to Trump. If you believe the US political system is, or was, functioning well, then Trump may be the unmitigated disaster his critics say he is. If you don’t believe it is working (as I don’t), then his victory has an upside, for all his faults and flaws. Trump rocked to its core an entrenched political establishment, both Democrat and Republican, and shattered the status quo. This created the opportunity, the space, for a different politics. Perhaps Americans were responding in the Ipsos survey to this potential, distanced from ideology, and the rancour and sordidness of the election and its aftermath. The question’s scope is broad, but in political terms, perhaps they were giving Trump the benefit of the doubt.

As I wrote this piece, there came the news that life expectancy in the US fell in 2017 for the third year in a row, a trend not seen since World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic in 1915-18. Many factors are contributing to the fall, including significant rises in death rates among those in the prime of life (aged 25-44), and continuing, sustained increases in drug-overdose deaths and suicide.  As one population-health expert noted, the new data confirm that ‘there’s a profound change in the trajectory of mortality. This should really be getting everyone’s attention in a major way’.

The news highlights how badly orthodox politics is failing (especially in the US heartland – Trump country – where an opioid epidemic is taking a huge toll).  Politics is in upheaval – not just in the US but in the rest of the world as well. However, there is as yet little sign of anything like the paradigm shift I discuss above. Instead, politics risks becoming, not fundamentally different, but more dangerously extreme; it has an inherent tendency to do this.

My interpretation of the Ipsos results may be wishful thinking – clutching at straws. But when straws are all we have, we have to grab hold of them. We need to strive to ensure that today’s political turmoil is only a prelude to the demise of the ‘official future’, and the emergence of a more humane and sustainable vision of where, as societies and a species, we want to go.