Okay, Americans are steamed. We’re short on leaders and long on critics. Hope and change were empty campaign slogans, and now citizens are angry and afraid. But isn’t there an upside?

Columnist Peggy Noonan is about as grim right now as she’s been in years, maybe more so. Let’s check that reality, and see if there isn’t something to hang onto as we plunge over the cliff.

The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did. This is a huge break with the past, with assumptions and traditions that shaped us.

The country I was born into was a country that had existed steadily, for almost two centuries, as a nation in which everyone thought—wherever they were from, whatever their circumstances—that their children would have better lives than they did. That was what kept people pulling their boots on in the morning after the first weary pause: My kids will have it better. They’ll be richer or more educated, they’ll have a better job or a better house, they’ll take a step up in terms of rank, class or status. America always claimed to be, and meant to be, a nation that made little of class. But America is human. “The richest family in town,” they said, admiringly. Read Booth Tarkington on turn-of-the-last-century Indiana. It’s all about trying to rise.

Parents now fear something has stopped. They think they lived through the great abundance, a time of historic growth in wealth and material enjoyment…

But they look around, follow the political stories and debates, and deep down they think their children will live in a more limited country, that jobs won’t be made at a great enough pace, that taxes—too many people in the cart, not enough pulling it—will dishearten them, that the effects of 30 years of a low, sad culture will leave the whole country messed up. And then there is the world: nuts with nukes, etc.

Optimists think that if we manage to turn a few things around, their kids may have it . . . almost as good. The country they inherit may be . . . almost as good. And it’s kind of a shock to think like this; pessimism isn’t in our DNA.

No, it’s not. What’s worse, the political powerbrokers aren’t in touch with that, with us.

I think their detachment from how normal people think is more dangerous and disturbing than it has been in the past. I started noticing in the 1980s the growing gulf between the country’s thought leaders, as they’re called—the political and media class, the universities—and those living what for lack of a better word we’ll call normal lives on the ground in America. The two groups were agitated by different things, concerned about different things, had different focuses, different world views.

But I’ve never seen the gap wider than it is now. I think it is a chasm. In Washington they don’t seem to be looking around and thinking, Hmmm, this nation is in trouble, it needs help. They’re thinking something else.

Like…how to consolidate power before they lose it.

And so they make their moves, manipulate this issue and that, and keep things at a high boil. And this at a time when people are already in about as much hot water as they can take.

Yes, media-stoked anger has erupted over issues of race, nationality, gender, rights, mandates, national identity and religion….and more and more all the time. We are frankly overwhelmed.

When the adults of a great nation feel long-term pessimism, it only makes matters worse when those in authority take actions that reveal their detachment from the concerns—even from the essential nature—of their fellow citizens. And it makes those citizens feel powerless.

Impulsive reaction….Cue needle screeching across record coming to a halt with freeze frame of bleak, dark grey shot of Judge Dredd futuristic society under siege. It’s a ‘what’s wrong with this picture’ snapshot of where we’re headed, without exaggerating or making light of Ms. Noonan’s points of insight. Seriously.

But….call me Pollyanna….I refuse to despair. In spite of the president’s claim on the world stage that America is not a Christian nation (though technically true), we still have enough remnant of the Judeo-Christian ethic on which this nation was built to resist hopelessness.

Instinctive reaction was to recall John Paul II’s historic Mass in Warsaw’s Victory Square. And snips about it from George Weigel’s Witness to Hope.

It had been a long time coming, and it took place in Victory Square, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where John Paul stopped and laid a bouquet, kneeling in silent prayer. Then the Mass began with a greeting from the beloved Polish Primate, Stefan Wyszynski.

Earlier in “Witness to Hope,” Weigel set the stage eloquently when he said that during World War II, Wyszynski believed…

“the Polish Church had proven that it knew how to suffer and die. Its task, now, was to show that it knew how to live. The unprecedented shock the Church had suffered during the Occupation meant that it could not withstand a direct confrontation with the new communist regime. Conflict was inevitable, but it had to be managed subtly and in the firm conviction that the Church, not the Party, was the true guardian of Poland’s identity.”

Wyzsnski’s task was the spiritual renewal of the country, and his young protegee/student/seminarian Karol Wojtyla was now Pope, and had returned to the homeland to reclaim its spiritual heritage….

“After the proclamation of the Gospel, a deep silence fell over the tremendous crowd. Polish Communist Party leader Edward Gierek watched nervously from a window in a hotel adjacent to the square. He, and millions of others, wondered: What would he say? What could he say?

“Karol Wojtyla looked out at a sea of expectant faces, paused–and then gave what may have been the greatest sermon of his life.”

Theses and texts have been written about that homily, brief but tremendously powerful.

“Today, he began, he wanted to “sing a hymn of praise to divine Providence” which had enabled him to come home “as a pilgrim”…

“The Poles, he insisted, had a right to think…”with singular humility but also with conviction” that it was to Poland, today, that “one must come…to read again the witness of His cross and His resurrection.” This was no cause for boasting, however. “If we accept all that I have dared to affirm in this moment, how many great duties and obligations arise? Are we capable of them?”

The crowd began rhythmic chant, “We want God, we want God…”

Somewhere around that moment, communism lost its grip.

The power of JPII’s appeal across the globe was his message to oppressed people ‘You’re not who they say you are.’ The force more powerful than any government or regime is the dignity of the human spirit that derives from belief in transcendent authority. “Pessimism and powerlessness”, as Noonan puts it, are not in the DNA of a Judeo-Christian culture.

It’s time for hope and change alright. But from the ground up, and inside out.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....