Blog Post

Insight: A New American Spirit

By: Dr. Timothy Shriver

Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect an institutional position of the Gardner Institute. We hope the opinions shared contribute to the marketplace of ideas and help people as they formulate their own INFORMED DECISIONS™.

Earlier this month, the Pew Charitable Trust released its report tracking America’s mood. “Americans have highly negative views of both parties’ leaders,” the headline reads. 60% disapprove of the president, 68% disapprove of Republican leaders in Congress, and 65% disapprove of Democratic leaders in Congress too. 

But the report has worse news than that. For the first time, a majority of Americans say the country is unable to solve its major problems. As recently as a year ago, 57% of Americans said that ”as Americans, we can solve our  problems.” Now that’s flipped. Today, 56% of us say we can’t solve our problems. 80% of us are “dissatisfied with the way things are going” in America. Large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats believe our system is unfair. Majorities don’t trust the Supreme Court either. And the most ominous news? 76% of Americans have “not very much” trust in the wisdom of the American people – or “none at all.”

These attitudes are painful and unsustainable. They represent feelings that are not healthy for body, mind, or soul. They contribute to the epidemic of loneliness, to soaring rates of anxiety, and to the diseases of despair. If they continue, our country won’t make it. It’s as simple as that.

As much as I understand these attitudes, I don’t believe these attitudes are American. This is not us—not who we’ve been at our best, not what we need now from each other, and not what will make a more just and joyful future possible. As my fellow University Impact Scholar Arthur Brooks has written, “we have a contempt problem,” and this data shows the contempt is getting worse.

I’m coming to The University of Utah because I’ve seen a different story of us at the “U.”  I’ve met scholars at the U who are working to understand how to ease these divisions. I’ve met leaders of the board and administration who want to take a chance on practical problem solving across divides. I’ve met students who want to heal relationships and make our politics healthy. I’ve met people of faith who want to live their faith by being mirrors of the dignity and divinity that lies within each of us—and all of us. I’m coming to learn from all of them and to add my voice to those who want to build a new American spirit grounded in dignity and possibility for our time.

Today, it can feel strange to be hopeful. I often feel like an outlier when I suggest we have reasons to believe in each other. People sometimes treat those of us who think we can solve our problems as if we’re naïve.  “Don’t you know how bad things are?” I hear.  “Don’t you know how bad they are?”

Actually, I think those voices are fear talking. It’s fear that’s being stoked by those author Amanda Ripley calls “conflict entrepreneurs” – those