Our national discussion of public affairs gets the line from an old Johnny Mercer song exactly backward: Rather than “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative,” it greatly exaggerates bad news, and relentlessly ignores what’s going right.
I understand the reasons the downside of modern life dominates political debate. For the media, hundreds of thousands of safe plane landings make much less interesting news than one crash with a lot of fatalities, and exposing public corruption or gross incompetence commands much more attention than reporting statistics that show progress in public health, a decline in malnutrition, or improvements in air and water quality.
For politicians and social reformers, the more vigorously they emphasize problems, the stronger their case for change. I’m pretty sure that no clip of a Senator complimenting a Cabinet secretary on the good job she has done has ever gone viral, or inspired a movement. Even incumbents are now much likelier to stress their commitments to making drastic changes in the status quo than to take credit for any specific part of it. Ronald Reagan’s politically potent optimism — “Morning in America” — would be a much harder sell today, though it would be more accurate: in nearly all respects we are better off as a society now than we were in 1984.