The zeitgeist might be defined by how easy or difficult it is to be optimistic, to sustain a worldview that hopes to lift all boats.
If things are going well then the end of possibility seems remote. It things are not, then our fickleness is exposed and something close enough to fear usurps hope.
Even though we still set the agenda, reimagining is replaced by retrenchment. We choose to cower rather than to stand tall.
There are two policy documents, neither implemented, by now curling at the edges in dusty archives that fell because fear outweighed optimism. Either would have made a very different, fairer Ireland.
Though it’s more than 50 years since Declan Costello’s ‘Just Society’ was proposed, time, and the widening chasm between its objectives and our reality, seems to make it only more relevant.
Mr Costello’s powerful farewell on his 1969 retirement — “Put upon your banners the Just Society, that Fine Gael is not a Tory party” — must needle his more perceptive successors, as they look across the floor at colleagues accurately excoriated as “Tory boys”.
The other document is the Kenny Report. Briefly disinterred last year by Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin, it proposed building land should be compulsorily acquired by local authorities at no more than 25% above farm value. Ireland would be a better, more even place had it been made real.
Those policies encouraged, however briefly, the idea a common purpose. It is now difficult to see how those ideas inform our public life or aspirations. It is also increasingly difficult to blame politicians, after all they are an echo of the society they represent and that echo is increasingly unattractive.
Independent TD Noel Grealish’s comments on Nigerian remittances; Fine Gael candidate in Wexford Verona Murphy’s “astonishing and extraordinary” warning about IS sleepers in preschools; Fianna Fáil candidate in Fingal Lorraine-Clifford Lee’s remarks on Travellers; and Peter Casey’s 20%-plus presidential vote achieved by attacking minorities shows how thin the veneer of tolerance is.
That four Fine Gael MEPs recently voted with Europe’s most strident anti-immigrant parties must set alarm bells ringing too.
This week’s involvement of Cork City Fine Gael councillor Des Cahill in efforts to block a housing development, 10% of which was to be social housing, outside the area he represents hardly chimes with Mr Costello’s vision either.
It goes without saying that he and the generation that introduced free education and so many other, uplifting social reforms would be appalled by our housing crisis, where the needs of those looking for a home are almost secondary considerations.
It is impossible to imagine they would conceive, much less propose, planning laws to limit valid objections to development — as Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy has done. There are myriad examples of fear having the greater influence.
At a moment when politics is polarising, it might be naive to suggest a reappraisal of the values informing the zeitgeist and how those values might play out.
But then, Mr Costello and Mr Kenny may have been naive too — but they were also right as the intervening years have proved.
That old advice — back to basics — is as relevant as ever.