American public opinion in 2016.

Most Americans thought that the country is in trouble.[1]  Better than four fifths (82 percent) said that the people in Washington don’t care about ordinary people; more than three-quarters (77 percent) saw the country as deeply divided over core values; more than three-quarters (76 percent) disapproved of Congress; almost three-quarters (74 percent) believed that the country is headed in the wrong direction; better than two-thirds (70 percent) thought that the presidential election brought out the worst in people; two-thirds thought that the tax system favors the wealthy; almost two-thirds (63 percent) thought that race relations are poor and over half (55 percent) expect them to get worse; and half (50 percent) thought that America’s best days had passed.

All those are opinions.  Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts.  Therefore, it has alarmed some people that many Trump voters believe things that are demonstrably not true.  Two-thirds of Trump voters believe that unemployment has increased during President Obama’s two terms; 60 percent believe that millions of illegal aliens voted I the election; and 40 percent believe that Trump won the popular vote.[2]

So, liberals are right to tout the achievement of the Obama administration in the area of employment?  Well, not exactly.  Almost all (94 percent) of the new 10 million jobs created from 2005 to 2015 are not traditional jobs.  They were either temporary jobs or contract-based jobs.[3]  In 2012, Hostess sold its snack-cake brands to a private equity firm.  Those brands then employed 8,000 people.  The investors paid $186 million for the troubled firm.  In 2016, the investors sold the revived firm for $2.3 billion.  At this point, Hostess employed only 1,200 people.[4]  Perhaps this explains some of the belief that the economic recovery is a fraud.

Under these circumstances, it should surprise no one that one-sixth (so, 16+ percent) of Americans are taking medication for depression, anxiety, or some other psychiatric ill.[5]  It would probably be higher if doctors weren’t so starchy.  Not everyone can get or thinks to ask for a script.  Two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans deal with stress by self-medicating with comfort foods.  Astonishingly for me, a mere 15 percent name pizza as their drug of choice.  In any event, two-thirds (66 percent) claim that they feel no guilt about bellying-up to the pasta bar.  As a result, in part, of consuming more in dark times, better than a third (36 percent) of Americans are merely overweight, while better than an additional quarter (28 percent) are actually obese.[6]  Must have been a lot of stress over the years.

Perhaps the solution to these problems would be to ignore the news.  In spite of their gloom over the state of the union, most Americans take a sunnier view of their own circumstances.  Over half (51 percent) think that the economy is improving; almost two-thirds (64 percent) are happy with their financial situation; better than three-quarters (77 percent) are happy with their jobs (or perhaps just happy to have one); and the vast majority (84 percent) are happy with their family and friends.  (Christmas should take care of that.)  So, apparently, it is awareness of the difficulties and deficiencies of others that inspires the pessimism about larger matters.  Empathy kills.

[1] “Poll Watch: The way we were in 2016,” The Week, 23 December/30 December 2016, p. 24.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 23 December/30 December 2016, p. 17.

[3] “The bottom line,” The Week, 23 December/30 December 2016, p. 46.

[4] “The bottom line,” The Week, 23 December/30 December 2016, p. 46.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 23 December/30 December 2016, p. 16.

[6] “Poll Watch: The way we were in 2016,” The Week, 23 December/30 December 2016, p. 24.

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Nostalgia.

“Compared with 50 years ago [i.e. 1966], life for people like you in America is worse.”  Agree or Disagree.[1]

 

Almost half (46 percent) of voters agreed with this statement.  The distribution was pretty much balanced between men (45 percent) and women (46 percent).  Fifty years into Women’s Lib and almost half of women think that life for people like them is worse?  Maybe the half of guys who think that life is not worse are married to the women who think life is worse, while the half of women who think life is not worse are married to the guys who think that life is worse.  Or perhaps gender isn’t the salient identity for men and women.  Maybe race or social class is more important.

Thereafter, the distribution breaks down in interesting ways.

While a majority of whites (54 percent) think that life is worse, only 17 percent of blacks think that life is worse.  Despite all our failings and short-comings, the Civil Rights movement and the government policies which it compelled is a huge success.  Do whites feel worse off because blacks don’t feel worse off?  Not likely: too few people lost anything from the formal end of white supremacy.  America remains largely segregated; and black people remain at a lower income than do whites.

Better than half of people who actually were alive 50 years ago think that their condition is worse: 55 percent of people aged 65 or older and 53 percent of people aged 50 to 64.  Presumably they know what they’re talking about.  The first group was born before 1952; the second group between 1952 and 1966.  Then the sense that things are worse is higher for those with only some college (49 percent) and high school or less (51 percent) than for those with a BA (39 percent) or post-graduate education (37 percent).[2]

The sense of decline is much stronger among Republicans than among Democrats. Some 70 percent of self-identified Conservative Republicans and 58 percent of Liberal/Moderate Republicans think that life is worse.  In contrast, only 20 percent of self-identified Liberal Democrats and 35 percent of Conservative/Moderate Democrats think that life is worse.

American real incomes, life span, and medical care are much better than 50 years ago, so it is likely to be something else that gives them the sense of decline.  It is more than likely that the discontent among older people/white people/Republicans springs from factors like the impact of economic globalization and the advance of information technology, but also from the long string of domestic and international reverses.[3]  Perhaps this is an artifact of the Republican Party having progressively captured the heart of the old New Deal coalition (Southerners, the Northern working class) over the last 50 years.

Is it possible that the next election(s) will be a struggle between those who have lost from the big changes that have overtaken America and those who have at least survived them unscathed?  Will it be a struggle between Nostalgia for a by-gone age and Complacency about the new age?  That seems a poor basis for deciding the fate of young people in the face of what looks to be several decades of grave challenges at home and abroad.

[1] Charles M. Blow, “A Trump-Sanders Coalition?  Nah,” NYT, 2 May 2016.  OK, it’s Charles Blow.  Still…

[2] Still, better than a third of people with a post-graduate degree think that life is worse?  They can’t all be college professors.

[3] I just finished Gregg Herken, The Georgetown Set, and now I’m listening to Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us.  So, those books probably are shaping my interpretation.

Public opinion and foreign policy.

Back in April 2014, almost half of Americans (47 percent) thought that the United States should be “less active” abroad.[1] That included both Republicans and Democrats (45 percent each, which suggests that Independents were still more likely to favor caution). However, markedly more Republicans (29 percent) than Democrats (12 percent) or all Americans (19 percent) thought that the US should be “more active” abroad. The Republican “don’t knows” amounted to 26 percent, compared to 43 percent for Democrats and 34 percent for all Americans. Thus, there was a more intense division of opinion among Republicans than among Democrats, while Democrats were more uncertain about the right course of action.

By August 2014, Americans were generally feeling surly about the country’s situation. The vast majority (71 percent) felt the country to be “on the wrong track,” and well over half (60 percent) felt it to be “in decline.”[2] A lot of this had to do with the still-unsatisfactory economic recovery and with the continuing dead-lock between the legislative and the executive branches, but some of it probably arose from foreign policy issues as well. In the wake of the rapid advance of ISIS in western Iraq, as well as in light of other domestic reverses (like the ObamaCare roll-out fiasco in Fall 2013), only 42 percent of Americans believed that President Obama could “manage the government effectively,” while a stinging 57 percent thought that he could not. That left only 1 percent who weren’t sure.[3]

A year and a half later, the course of events had shifted opinion among both Republicans and Democrats.  The rise of ISIS from Summer 2014 on, the terrorist attacks in Western countries, and the controversial Iran deal all worked to polarize opinion. The events sent many Republicans back toward a traditional policy of engagement. By December 2015, only 32 percent of Republicans wanted to “focus more at home,” while 62 percent favored being “stronger abroad.” That left only 6 percent saying that they “didn’t know.” The same events sent many Democrats toward a policy of disengagement. Among Democrats, 69 percent now said that the US should “focus more at home,” while only 23 percent favored being “stronger abroad.” That left only 8 percent saying that they “didn’t know.”

Partly, this may be a reflection of the dissolution of established verities. Only 44 percent of Democrats sympathized with Israel in its war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in Summer 2014, while only 51 percent of Americans overall sympathized more with Israel than with the Palestinians. In contrast, 73 percent of Republicans sympathized with Israel. Whatever the merits of Israel’s policy, the actual implementation of blockade, bombings, and artillery fire in an urban area crowded with women and children as well as missile-firing militants made for gruesome television viewing.

Or perhaps it was just the return to a presidential election campaign that caused many Democrats and Republicans to adopt policies in knee-jerk opposition to their rivals’ policies. For example, in March 2015, 53 percent of Republicans supported automatic registration of all eligible voters. Then, Hillary Clinton endorsed this proposal. Soon, only 28 percent of Republicans supported automatic registration of all eligible voters.[4]

In any event, American voters will get a clear choice in November 2016.

[1] “Behind Shifting GOP Mindset,” WSJ, 4 February 2016.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 22 August 2014, p. 17.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 8 August 2014, p. 15.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 June 2015, p. 15. Still, only a minority (48 percent) of Americans supported the idea, while 36 percent were opposed.

American Opinion and the Confederate Battle Flag.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Civil Rights movement reached one of its peaks. American public opinion turned against segregation, overt racism, and the violent defense of white dominance. This peak also coincided with the centennial of the Civil War. I haven’t seen (but maybe I haven’t looked hard enough) much scholarly work on how white Southerners sought to commemorate the “American Iliad.”[1] Were little Confederate flags placed on the graves of veterans in cemeteries? Were there speeches on the “Confederate Memorial Day”? Were more streets and highways named for Confederate generals? In any event, I conjecture that a Civil War Movement arose to counter the Civil Rights Movement. One aspect of that appeared in laws incorporating the Confederate battle flag into the state flags of some Southern states or to the displaying of the flag on government buildings.

Fifty years later, much had changed. In late June and early July 2015, the vast majority of Americans (64 percent) opposed having the Confederate flag fly over public buildings, while 21 percent thought that the flag should be allowed to fly over public buildings; and 21 percent weren’t sure.[2] However, most of the 21 percent who favored flying the Confederate flag over public buildings live in Southern states. Two weeks later, a majority (57 percent) of Americans accepted that the Confederate battle flag is a symbolic expression of “Southern pride,” rather than a racist affirmation. However, a majority of Americans still supported hauling down the flag on public property. Among that majority viewing the flag as a symbol of Southern pride were 75 percent of Southern whites. However, 75 percent of Southern blacks saw it as chiefly a racist statement. Deep divisions exist in the South over the Confederate flag.[3] However, lots of Southern whites appear to recognize that what is a symbol of pride to them is also deeply offensive to African-Americans. (See the statement by South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.) This might suggest an important, but hard to define, psychological shift among Southern whites. Still, opinion polls don’t always dig too deep. What did the other 25 percent of Southern whites believe about the flag, that it was a racist affirmation? If so, did they like that or did they hate it?

Why does “Southern” appear to mean “Southern and white”? Is there a regional culture shared by whites and blacks? Looking at Farm Security Administration photographs from the Thirties and Forties might lead you to think so. See the remarkable on-line exhibition at: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/bound-for-glory/ So might the history of Zydeco.[4] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fa8vyTfugcI Shooting people in church might fall outside the pale in such a shared culture. Or perhaps it awakens memories of a fire-bombed church in Birmingham, Alabama many years ago.

There is no question of the Confederate flag flying over federal buildings, but each state has the right to choose what flags fly on state government grounds. Another problem left to later generations by the Founding Fathers. What did they expect us to do, figure it out for ourselves?

[1] Charles Roland, An American Iliad: The Story of the Civil War, 2nd edition (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2004).

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 3 July 2015, p. 17.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 17 July 2015, p. 17.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zydeco

Climate of Fear XVII.

In 2006, a Pew poll reported that 79 percent of Americans saw global warming as a serious problem; in 2010 the number fell to 63 percent; and a recent poll reported that the number has risen to 69 percent. Similarly, in 2009, 57 percent of Americans accepted that there was “solid evidence of [global] warming”; in 2015, 68 percent agree.[1]

How do we explain the fluctuations? There are a number of possible answers. First, people trade off fears about climate change with fears about economic growth. When the economy tanks, people worry that environmental regulations will cripple recovery; when the economy recovers, people start to worry about the environment.

Second, the deep polarization of American politics causes the party out of power to swing against whatever the party in power proposes. In a classic example of this, in March 2015, 53 percent of Republicans supported automatic registration of all eligible voters. Recently, Hillary Clinton endorsed this proposal. Now, only 28 percent of Republicans support automatic registration of all eligible voters.[2] Many Republicans responded to the push by the Democrats for major climate legislation in 2009-2010 by clinging to their skepticism about climate change. Still, this hardly tells all of the story. For one thing, apparently, male Democrats are slightly less interested in the issue of climate change than are female Democrats, and the Democrats couldn’t get their climate change bill through Congress when they controlled both houses in 2010.[3] For another thing, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The Republicans now are the “party in power” in both houses of Congress. If parties become more intensely opposed to the position of the party in power, then perhaps the spike in climate change belief really reflects a knee-jerk response among Democrats.

The economy always fluctuates, but climate change is a continuing problem. The changing salience of climate change as a problem suggests something not very quantifiable about the continual intrusion of short-term concerns into the response to long-term problems. Parties alternate in power, sometimes every two years, but climate change is a continuing problem. The changing salience of climate change as a problem suggests something not very quantifiable about the continual intrusion of irrationality and passion into politics. Americans have no monopoly on this trait, as the bitter Greek debt negotiations show.

[1] David Leonhardt, “Americans’ Concern Over Climate Change Is Again on the Rise,” NYT, 17 June 2015.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 June 2015, p. 15.

[3] I know, I know: “super-majority,” “filibuster,” “gerrymandering,” and “the Koch Brothers.” However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could not even muster the support of all the Democrats. See: Carl Hulse and David Herszenhorn, “Democrats Call Off Climate Bill Effort,” NYT, 22 July 2010.

“Die for Danzig?” Marcel Deat, “Mourir pour Danzig?” L’Oeuvre, 4 May 1939.

Fighting Russia isn’t a very popular idea. Fighting Russia over Ukraine doesn’t have much support in spite of the obvious Russian intervention in the rebellion in eastern Ukraine. But fighting Russia if it attacks a fellow member of NATO seems like a no-brainer. That’s what a military alliance is all about, right? Well, not necessarily.[1]

Back in 1956, in the midst of the Eisenhower administration and at the height of the Cold War, 82 percent of Americans believed that a Russian attack on one member was an attack on all and that the US should fight, while 8 percent opposed it, and 10 percent weren’t sure. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 56 percent of Americans supported using force against Russia if it became involved in a “serious military conflict” with another NATO member state, while 37 percent were opposed, and a mere 7 percent weren’t sure. Among some other NATO countries, support then falls off by small steps. Support for fighting slides down through Canada (53), Britain (49), Poland and Spain (48), France (47), Italy (40), and Germany (38).[2] In Germany, 58 percent opposed fighting Russia, while only 4 percent weren’t sure.

With regard to the conflict in Ukraine, Poland (50 percent) and the United States (46 percent) most strongly support sending weapons to the Kiev government. Thereafter, support declines among other NATO members through Canada (44), Britain (42), and France (40), before falling off sharply in Spain (25 percent), Italy (22) and Germany (19). Similarly, 62 percent of Americans favor admitting Ukraine to NATO, but only 36 percent of Germans supported such a move.

One way to think about this is that, in spite of the frequent media references to a revived Cold War, most people in the West aren’t there yet. Still, it may be where we are headed. Favorable opinion about the United States among Russians has fallen from 51 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in June 2015 and favorable opinion about NATO has fallen from 37 percent to 26 percent over the same period. Favorable opinion about Russia in the NATO countries has fallen from 37 percent to 26 percent.

Another way to think about this is that there has been a significant disaggregation within the NATO alliance since the end of the Cold War. The United States and Germany now represent opposite poles on a number of key policy issues. As the creation of the Eurozone and the negotiations over the Greek debt crisis show, Germany has become the dominant power in Europe. Americans demonstrate a resolution (or belligerence) unmatched by the Germans. This is something with which future leaders of both countries will have to wrestle.

Still another way to think about this is that we are witnessing yet another phase in the troubled, tortuous relationship between Germany and Russia. Before the First World War they were two conservative empires in opposed alliances. Between the wars they were ideologically opposed states driven to co-operate by their international pariah status. Since 1945, the partitioned Germanys first clung to their dominant partner, then West Germany’s “Ostpolitik” began opening a road East based on economic complementarity. Vladimir Putin’s assertion of Russian power and interests among the non-NATO former members of the Soviet Union has challenged that relationship. Belarus and Georgia may be next, but people worry that he will not stop at the borders of the Baltic states. Putin’s own moderation—or lack of it–holds the key.

[1] Naftali Bendavid, “Poll Shows West Is Divided On How to Deal With Russia,” WSJ, 10 June 2015.

[2] The Polish stance is worth some thought because Poland is going to provide the most likely battlefield in such a conflict.

Some American Public Opinion in Spring 2015.

Standardized testing has been all the rage among educational reformers for more than a decade.[1] Only 20 percent of Americans think that it has done more good than harm to the students or the schools; 49 percent think that it has done more harm than good; and 31 percent “don’t know.” However, “don’t know” isn’t one of the options on a standardized test. Would it count as a correct answer if it was an option?

Americans frequently “don’t know” where they stand on public issues, but that isn’t the case with gay marriage. Today 61 percent favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry.[2] Opposition to gay marriage rallies 35 percent. That leaves just 4 percent who don’t know.

Reading the statistics above can obscure, rather than clarify, where Americans stand on the issue. Liberal media and public figures heaped abuse on Indiana’s “religious freedom” law on the grounds that it permitted discrimination against gays. Polls revealed that 49 percent of Americans agreed with the law’s critics. However, 47 percent believed that wedding-related businesses should be able to refuse their services to gay couples. Naturally, the vast majority of the dissenters were Republicans (68 percent), but a third of Democrats (33 percent) also supported business’ “right to choose.”[3]

Support for capital punishment has been slipping in America in recent decades. In 1988, 78 percent favored the death penalty for murder. In 2015, 56 percent support the death penalty for murder. Slightly more of the nation, 60 percent, supports imposing the death penalty on Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber.[4] However, opposition to the death penalty is stronger among some groups than among other groups. Thus California juries are more willing to assign someone the death penalty than are California judges to allow the penalty to be carried out. Currently, there are 751 people on death row in California, but there have been no executions in almost ten years.[5] In a remarkable demonstration of core values, in early April 2015, 62 percent of Boston voters favored sentencing Dzhokar Tsarnaev to life in prison, rather than to death, if/when he was convicted for his part in the Boston Marathon bombing.[6]

The following is no new thing, but it has come to the attention of white America as a reasonable possibility. While 61 percent of all Americans express “great” or “fair” confidence in their local police, the number plummets to 36 percent among African-Americans.[7] That means that 39 percent don’t feel “great” or “fair” confidence in their local police. Who are these people? They can’t all be members of the ACLU. Since African-Americans make up about 11 percent of the population, that would suggest that 7-8 percent of the American population (the two-thirds of the 11 percent who are African-American) lack “great” or “fair” confidence in their local police. If 39 percent of Americans over-all lack “great” or “fair” confidence in their local police, then 31-32 percent of Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic Americans also lack “great” or “fair” confidence in their local police. The crisis of confidence in local police reaches far beyond high school students rioting in Baltimore when they should be in study hall.

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 3 April 2015, p. 15.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 8 May 2015, p. 17. Of course the phrasing of the statement allows for the comic possibility that many Americans think that gay men want to marry lesbians. “Marriage means one man and one woman.”   So that would be—you know—OK.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 17 April 2015, p. 17.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 1 May 2015, p. 17.

[5] The Week, 10 April 2015, p. 14.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 3 April 2015, p. 15.

[7] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 8 May 2015, p. 17.