How soon before economic riots hit the U.S.?

Could these emotions escalate into revolt? Corporate earnings have soared to an all-time high. Wall Street is gaudy and confident again. But the heyday hasn’t come for millions of Americans. Unemployment hovers near 9 percent, and the only jobs that truly abound, according to Labor Department data, come with name tags, hairnets, and funny hats (rather than high wages, great benefits, and long-term security). The American Dream is about having the means to build a better life for the next generation. But as President Obama acknowledged at a town-hall meeting in May, “a lot of folks aren’t feeling that [possibility] anymore.”

At worst, the result could be the Days of Rage already seen overseas. In Spain last week protesters clashed with police, a violent demonstration against economic woes and austerity measures—much like those under review in Washington. Earlier this year riots swept the Arab world, exploding out of a volatile mix of high unemployment and large numbers of educated, ambitious people who feel their dreams have been denied—something with which an alarming number of Americans can identify. Nearly one in five men between 25 and 54 is without a job right now—a bulge of disaffected wall-leaners that New York Times columnist David Brooks worries could have a “corrosive cultural influence.”…

Expectation is also the country’s saving grace. In both a public and private sense, people have always raged against the gap between their ideal lives and their reality. But Americans, perhaps more than residents of any other developed nation, not only look to the future but assume it will be bright. “Americans keep a second set of books,” says Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin, an expert on social movements. One is a record of life as it really is; the other is “how it will be once I get past this little bump.”