Gwen’s Take: The View from Aspen

BY Gwen Ifill  July 1, 2011 at 5:19 PM EST

ASPEN — Since we established in this space that I am a professional skeptic, I arrived at the Aspen Ideas Festival — a kind of Rocky Mountain think-fest — prepared for a pretty dreary recounting of where the nation stands right now.

Civility is dead, right? A well-known news analyst called the president a slang term for a male organ on national television this week. He was promptly suspended for what was at the least an unnecessarily coarse way to make a point many may have agreed with.

We don’t listen to each other, right? We shout. We rail. The president compares elected members of the United States Congress — unfavorably — to his 10- and 13-year-old daughters. The Speaker of the House has no trouble accusing the president of killing jobs on a regular basis. Can we presume these types of disagreements did not arise on the golf course?

We change the facts to suit our beliefs, right? Supporters of at least two presidential candidates edited the Wikipedia sites of Paul Revere and John Quincy Adams to fit misstatements each made in the heat of campaign battle. (And no, Revere did not ring bells to warn the British. Adams was not a founding father. That was his father.)

If, right about now, you are wondering at the smallness of these disagreements, you are not alone. Americans, at root, agree with each other on far more than they disagree. And when they disagree, they generally refrain from calling each other foul names.

Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor who writes and lectures extensively about human bonding mechanisms, arrived at Aspen with surveys that showed we are, for instance, far more tolerant of different religions than politicians would have us believe.

And later in the day, I watched government officials from Israel and Jordan converse calmly (but without agreement) about the stalemated Middle East peace process. Several panel discussions here were devoted to the notion of happiness.

Does all this mean the idea that we are locked in endless, toxic conflict is overblown?

Well, not exactly. It turns out that may be because we are too depressed to hurl invective at one other. A new poll of 2,017 Americans conducted last month for TIME and the Aspen Institute was far more downbeat than I expected.

Sixty eight percent say the past decade was one of decline. And although the terrorist attacks of 9/11 are considered the defining event of the decade, 75 percent are now more worried about the economy than about national security.

In a week when outside groups for Democrats and Republicans have taken to the airwaves to point the finger at each other, and lawmakers play chicken with the possibility of budget default, this pessimism is worth keeping in mind.