Despite Market Upturn, Public Pessimism Persists

I've stepped into my local bookshop for the first time in a while. Care to join me?

It's not one of the mega-stores with thousands of volumes in every category; shelf space is tight, and they carry only those books they believe will move quickly.

As I glance over the titles in "Current Events," I see that I need to look more closely. "Current Events" means "Politics," so I expect titles that speak to the controversies of the day. Yet today I detect something qualitatively different.

The books in this section mostly divide themselves into the camps of the two major political parties; the images and words on the dust jackets carry messages as easy to distinguish as Coke vs. Pepsi. Yet unlike colorful ad slogans about whose sugar water tastes better, this is primal.

These books bring TV's political shout fests into what should be a more coherent medium, namely the written word. But what gets me is the fervent anger in the titles.

One camp offers these: "Thieves in High Places," "The Lies of George W. Bush," "Sleeping With the Devil," "Bushwhacked," "Lost Liberties," "Big Lies," "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them."

Here's the selection from the other side:

"Enemy Aliens," "Persecution," "Treason," "Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years," "Off With Their Heads," "The Culture of Fear," "Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity."

There are others with titles that don't sound angry, but with content like artillery shells fired from opposite ends of the room; books like "Dude, Where's My Country?," and "Shut Up and Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN are Subverting America."

Speaking of armament, you expect descriptions like these from countries that fight wars against each other ... but, from opponents who profess faith in the same political system? It's "You're the Devil" vs. "You're a Traitor."

Yes, there are often strong opinion books out there. Look at the nonfiction best sellers from a random week of any recent year, and you'll see titles like Parliament of Whores (1992) and The Death of Common Sense (1995). Yet these were skirmishes, not personalized all-out war across the bookshelves.

History buffs among you can rightly point out how malicious previous periods of American politics have been. H. L. Mencken made an art form of reviling presidents, with its highest expression saved for "the quack" and "the Fuhrer," namely Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mencken's words belong to what became a stream of Roosevelt abuse. A former neighbor of FDR's labeled him a "swollen-headed nitwit with a Messiah complex and the brain of a boy scout," and an Idaho senator said the president "spent time in his study cutting out paper dolls."

These insults are a high standard for today's anger to match; in fact you have to go back to ... well, to Abraham Lincoln to read slurs of this kind. Yes, the most admired of all U.S. presidents didn't always get "good press" from his contemporaries.

"Filthy story teller, despot, liar, thief, braggart, buffoon, usurper, monster, ignoramus Abe, old scoundrel, perjurer, swindler, tyrant, field-butcher, land-pirate,"fumed Harper's magazine. A "joke," "a buffoon," and a "pigmy," wrote James Gordon Bennett, Sr., editor of the New York Herald. And one of Lincoln's top generals, George McCellan, declared that his commander-in-chief was "An offensive exhibition of boorishness and vulgarity," and "Nothing more than a well-meaning baboon."

Of course, Lincoln and FDR governed in times of extreme economic hardship and real all-out war. All we've seen to explain today's extreme anger is some war, some hardship, and a three-year bear market -- so far, anyway. Will the anger pass, or is this only the beginning?

A recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal gives a partial answer, by quoting publishers who say that books of this kind "will pour forth over the next six months." This suggests that, despite several months of stock market recovery and a spate of positive economic numbers, society's anger is growing.

After nearly two decades of strongly optimistic trends -- in the economy, the stock market and across the broader culture -- a long-term shift toward pessimism arrived in early 2000. Anger, and the negative social mood behind it, has been slowly building for nearly four years. The bitter political atmosphere, the continuing   bear market, rising unemployment and increasingly crass and violent entertainment are all evidence that this pessimism persists.

Layoff numbers more than doubled in October to their highest total in a year. Yet while those figures went largely unreported, most financial analysts continue to treat every bit of "positive" economic news as a "recovery" of the old optimism; this is obvious in recent coverage of GDP and payroll growth. The tone of the stories look and sound exactly like the "turnaround" optimism of summer 2000, spring 2001, and spring 2002, each of which resolved with another wave down in the stock market.

Opinion makers, and the voters and investors who listen to them, have yet to grasp this long-term shift to pessimism, despite the sort of evidence that's as close as the local bookshop. The supply of angry books I described above is growing. They wouldn't be there if there were no demand.

Robert Folsom is a financial writer and editor for Elliott Wave International, a financial analysis company. He has covered politics, popular culture, economics and the financial markets for 16 years, and today writes EWI's popular Market Watch column. Robert earned his degree in political science from Columbia University in 1985.