David Whitman first considered how public opinion affects American lives in a 1996 article for U.S. News & World Report
. The Optimism Gap
builds on that piece, elaborating upon his contention that Americans tend to think their immediate communities are better off than are communities across the nation. Concomitantly, he argues, people underestimate local problems and are daunted by national issues; the result in both cases is dangerous entropy.
Whitman's research is stunning for both its breadth and tonnage: a text of fewer than 150 pages merits 451 footnotes citing studies and polls, journal articles, and government stats. With this daunting cache of information, he presents a cautiously optimistic view of where Americans stand. This book is an antidote to cynicism, he suggests--and a way to counter the "we-they" distinctions Americans make, which result in "a dividing line that is exaggerated at best and pernicious at worst." Skewed views of issues such as crime, scholastic achievement, health, and race may result from a fairly natural human tendency to be self-admiring, Whitman says, but "much of the time, however, public fears about America's future stem from a kind of iron triangle of alarmism created by the media, advocacy groups, and business lobbyists." Hyperbole sells, he explains, but even if the cause is good--missing children on milk cartons or calls to save the environment--exaggerating reality renders people helpless or inured. To narrow the gap, Whitman suggests a program of reduced expectations and increased sense of common purpose. For anyone willing to consider even the possibility that the present and future are, overall, actually rosy, Whitman's book makes a useful case. --Lise Funderburg