The Case for Hope

Mr. Kristof is the author of a new memoir, “Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life,” from which this essay is adapted.

More than three-quarters of Americans say the United States is headed in the wrong direction. This year, for the first time, America dropped out of the top 20 happiest countries in this year’s World Happiness Report. Some couples are choosing not to have children because of climate threats. And this despair permeates not just the United States, but much of the world.

This moment is particularly dispiriting because of the toxic mood. Debates about the horrifying toll of the war in Gaza has made the atmosphere even more poisonous, as the turmoil on college campuses underscores. We are a bitterly divided nation, quick to point fingers and denounce one another, and the recriminations feed the gloom. Instead of a City on a Hill, we feel like a nation in despair — maybe even a planet in despair.

Yet that’s not how I feel at all.

What I’ve learned from four decades of covering misery is hope — both the reasons for hope and the need for hope. I emerge from years on the front lines awed by material and moral progress, for we have the good fortune to be part of what is probably the greatest improvement in life expectancy, nutrition and health that has ever unfolded in one lifetime.

Many genuine threats remain. We could end up in a nuclear war with Russia or China; we might destroy our planet with carbon emissions; the gap between the wealthy and the poor has widened greatly in the United States in recent decades (although global inequality has diminished); we may be sliding toward authoritarianism at home; and 1,000 other things could go wrong.

Yet whenever I hear that America has never been such a mess or so divided, I think not just of the Civil War but of my own childhood: the assassinations of the 1960s, the riots, the murders of civil rights workers, the curses directed at returning Vietnam veterans, the families torn apart at generational seams, the shooting of students at Kent State, the leftists in America and abroad who quoted Mao and turned to violence because they thought society could never evolve.

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