Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Polls and The Media

The best of times, the worst of times?
America’s public gloom contradicts people’s enduring, if private, confidence

By Michael Medved

It's no wonder that Americans feel so deeply disconnected from their elected leaders when their contradictory opinions show them similarly out of touch with themselves.

Public approval of Congress has plummeted to an historic low (18%, with a staggering 76% disapproval, according to a recent Gallup Poll) while an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey reports that more than two-thirds of us (68%) believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction.

Meanwhile, when asked about our own lives, Americans express overwhelming contentment and dazzling confidence. In a mid-August Harris Poll that asked respondents to evaluate their satisfaction levels "with the life you lead," an amazing 94% declared themselves satisfied (with a clear majority — 56% — choosing the highest rating of "very satisfied"). Meanwhile, 62% expected their "personal situation" to get even better in the next five years, as opposed to a paltry 7% who anticipated that their circumstances would get worse.

(Illustration by Web Bryant, USA TODAY)

On the surface, these responses look almost laughably inconsistent. Some 68% of us believe the nation is "off on the wrong track," but by a ratio of nearly 9-to-1 we're confident that our lives will improve, rather than deteriorate, in the next five years. Only 17% say our personal status "got worse" in the past five years (while 54% reported improvement), but by crushing margins of more than 4-to-1, we tell pollsters we disapprove of the job our leaders are doing.

In other words, Americans seem to embrace the odd conviction that each of us dwells upon some sun-kissed, optimistic island of happiness and advancement, while the rest of the country marches dramatically toward catastrophe and collapse.

The media influence

The most important explanation for this bizarre contradiction involves the impact of mass media in a nation where the average individual devotes close to 30 hours per week to his TV set. Instead of working in the news business, most broadcast journalists actually toil in the "bad news business," with natural disasters, bloody accidents, crime, terrorism, battlefield casualties, political conflict and economic threats dominating every day's televised reports. Reassuring news items can hardly rival terrifying dispatches when it comes to riveting the attention of a restless public, powerfully armed with a hair-trigger remote control. Most entertainment, very much including televised comedies, similarly emphasizes conflict, danger, degeneracy and embarrassment — The Sopranos can capture our attention far more readily than the Cleavers. Weekly series about wholesome, ordinary families making steady economic progress stand little chance of grabbing ratings or publicity in a ferociously competitive pop culture marketplace.

Politicians make an additional contribution to the prevailing gloom about the status and direction of the nation at large. It almost always makes sense for candidates and public officials to exaggerate problems and magnify threats. If they're challengers, they cite the miserable state of affairs in order to discredit incumbents, and if they're current office-holders, they emphasize the bad news in order to justify sweeping, ambitious and expensive new programs.

In the face of the grim conclusions conveyed by complaints of politicos and the inevitable alarms of broadcast media, Americans struggle to come to terms with the contrasting evidence of their own eyes and lives.

An ordinary American might worry about frightening talk of Iranian threats or trade imbalances, but that can't shake his pride in becoming a homeowner for the first time, or watching a child become the first one in family history to get a college education.

Economists and statisticians might argue back and forth about trends and living standards, but some new statistics from the IRS seem incontrovertible. In the most recent five years, the number of those earning less than an inflation-adjusted $25,000 a year shrank by 5.5% — representing 3.2 million fewer individuals who were trapped in those poverty level incomes. Meanwhile, the number of taxpayers making more than $100,000 per year grew by nearly 3.4 million and accounted for more than two-thirds of the total growth in the number of returns filed.

Anyone who questions the widespread conclusion that our personal circumstances have improved need only look to the urban area in which you live. Every major city — very much including previously forlorn "rust belt" metropolises such as Detroit and Cleveland — boasts new parks, condo developments, cultural facilities, highways and transit, and commercial districts. Nearly every downtown in the country has notably improved — and it's even tough to single out neighborhoods that have moved in the wrong direction. In recent years, gentrification has become a bigger, more hotly debated problem than the expansion of slums.

It's not surprising that Americans tell pollsters that they feel pleased with their improved circumstances in the past five years and see further enhancements ahead, regardless of the fulminations and failures of our political class.

Comfort closer to home

American satisfaction with the near-at-hand and cynicism about distant reality turned up clearly in the NBC News/Journal poll with contrasting attitudes toward local and national institutions. For instance, 54% expressed "high confidence" in "small business," but only 11% felt similarly positive toward "large corporations." Some 34% deemed "local government" worthy of "high confidence," as opposed to only 16% who felt the same way about the federal government — and 18% who trusted and respected "national news media."

In other words, Americans feel better about institutions and realities the closer they come to their own cities, their own neighborhoods, their own homes. They like and value their personal status, but fret or shrug over the state of the nation. In this context, nothing could improve the national mood more substantially than a new effort by influential figures in media and politics to apply some of our privately grateful, self-reliant and optimistic attitudes to public discussions of the society at large.

Nationally syndicated radio talk host Michael Medved is the author of Right Turns. He is also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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