Blogs > HNN > Opinion Polls and the Public Malaise

Aug 20, 2007 12:57 am

Opinion Polls and the Public Malaise

[Prof. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, and Chester A. Arthur. Marquette University Press published his biography of Wisconsin Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr. in 2006. ]

A few weeks ago, three major public opinion polls all showed that the vast majority of Americans are unhappy about the way things are going in the United States. The Newsweek and NBC/Wall Street Journal polls showed the dissatisfaction level at 68%, while Gallup registered 74%. At the same time, a Gallup Poll found that the public’s confidence in 16 national institutions had dropped dramatically, with Congress hitting an all-time low of 14%. And all of this anguish is occurring at a time when Americans are enjoying a level of prosperity, freedom, physical health, education, safety, and personal comfort almost unimaginable even a half century ago. Moreover, the United States is the most powerful and most generous nation in history. And most of us seem to be quite miserable about this.

Of course, it is possible to be happy about one’s own life, as the polls also indicate, and to be unhappy about the state of the nation. In fact, there are good reasons to be wary of the course of American life. Our four-year struggle in Iraq, for example, seems to have involved us in a deadly civil war between people who appear to be unworthy and unappreciative of our blood and money. But how will an American surrender and pull-out enhance peace and security in the world? Our inability and unwillingness to control our national borders has caused much consternation. Many believe that the calls for amnesty for illegal aliens is about Republicans wanting cheap labor and Democrats wanting votes. Government grows ever larger and threatens our liberty no matter which party is in control. The future of America’s energy supplies is uncertain. There is a growing gap between rich and poor. (It’s not all in John Edwards’s imagination). Then too, there is the moral slide that both sides of the Culture War can see.

In mid-June, the National Center for Health Statistics issued a report on drug and sexual behavior reported by adults in the United States from 1999 and 2002. Among its findings:

1. More than a fifth of adults 20-49 years of age have tried cocaine or other street drugs at some time. (The figure would have been far higher had marijuana been included in the question.)
2. Virginity is rare: 96% of adults aged 20 years and older have engaged in some sort of sex, including oral and anal sex. Among non-hispanic blacks, 28% reported having first had sex before the age of 15. (The figure was 14% for whites.)
3. Twenty-nine percent of men reported having 15 or more female sexual partners in their lifetime. (Only 9% of women could match that dubious achievement.) For black males, the figure was 46%. The median number of sexual partners for all men was 6.8. (For women, it was 3.7.)
4. Overall, 17% of men and 10% of women said they had two or more sexual partners in the past year.

Many people too are upset by the level of crime; although it has declined in some respects, there are currently 2.2 million people behind bars in this country. Many conservatives find the continuation of abortion-on-demand a national crime and are deeply concerned about pornography and the increasing crudity of the mass media. Many on the Left seek homosexual rights, higher taxes on the “rich,” and some form of socialized medicine. The usual battles.

Then too, people are no doubt responding negatively to questions about the course of the nation because their sources of news, the media, feature little other than misery, suffering, and lunacy, often salted with a good dose of anti-Americanism. (Name a medal winner in the Iraq war. Everyone knows about Abu Ghraib.) Even the Weather Channel dotes on disasters, on a slow day featuring disasters of the past. It’s interesting to note that a majority of adult citizens may well realize they are being manipulated and misled: In the Gallup poll on confidence, television news scored 23% positive, followed by newspapers at 22%. (The top five in confidence: the military, small business, the police, churches and organized religion, and banks. Only the first three made it above 50%.)

The extraordinary hatred of President Bush, especially by the Left, no doubt also contributes significantly to the public expression of national malaise. The presidency scored 25% confidence in the Gallup poll. As a Wall Street Journal poll revealed, most voters now want a Democratic President in 2008. Still, the Democratically-controlled Congress, as noted above, is not exactly a hit with the public. (At the time of Watergate, Congress scored 40% approval, a level reached again in 1986.) Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi spend much of their time, of course, stressing the horrors Republicans have allegedly perpetrated during the Bush years. The GOP routinely follows the same strategy against Democrats. Partisan politics rarely generate national pride and confidence, and certainly not with the cast of nasty characters currently prominent in both national parties.

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Jason Blake Keuter - 9/19/2007

Anyone concerned about teenage sexual promiscuity should have their teenager read your comments.

James W Loewen - 8/20/2007

Do the math: if we are talking about heterosexual sex, then the # of women having sex times their # of sexual partners EXACTLY equals the # of men having sex times their # of sexual partners. To claim "29% of men reported having 15 or more female sexual partners in their lifetime, [while] only 9% of women could match that dubious achievement, is idiotic, unless somewhere a small # of women are having hundreds of sexual partners. While prostitutes might step in to fill this role, the next statistics, "The median number of sexual partners for all men was 6.8. (For women, it was 3.7.)" shows that the author does not think prostitutes do it; rather, Reeves does not grasp that the numbers he cites are bogus.
(Yes, I do understand that it is the MEAN #s that MUST be equal, but means and medians do not differ markedly within each sex.)
What is REALLY going on? Men and women are answering the questionnaire in line with cultural norms. To some degree, men are SUPPOSED to be studs and have multiple partners, so they exaggerate (or at least count every damn thing they can think of), while to some degree women are still SUPPOSED to be "good girls" and have few partners, so they minimize (or at least omit "minor" encounters). Viola! Impossible math results are produced!
There is a literature on this in sociology....
Does make you wonder about everything else in the article.

Jason Blake Keuter - 8/20/2007

This post interest me because Reeves, a conservative, discusses issues of immediate relevance and importance in people's lives that involve emotional complexity (mainly sex); whereas the Foner school of "new" history (Multicultural Marxism) really doesn't. It's all Bush and Globalization and macro issues and the real people are cardboard villians and earnestly imperfect strugglers for "social" justice and hapless cardboard victims.

This disconnect has always existed between the left and real people because the actual lives real people lead do not lend themselves well to the pseudo-democratic caricatures of average people upon which left-wing ideology is so dependent. In reality, the quality of an individual's life is largely determined by what tehy do with their life. When people report that they're unhappy, and we finally come to recognize that their choices have made them that way, we dangerously conclude that the problem is their choices. To look at Reeves piece, it contains some of the perils of prosperity logic used by the left to counter the realities of capitalist affluence. We have so much ,yet we're not happy, so the solution rests in a return to Spartan primitivism. And if you have any qualms about that condition, don't worry, I have teams of anthropologists with polling data that shows affluent manhattanites are less happy than Nigerians. I also have plenty of pseudo-academics with romanticized protraits of pre-civilized socieities who lived in perfect harmony with nature (but what about fossil evidence of 25 year life-spans? Sorry, not phd for you!)

The solution to the discontents wrought by prosperity is not ending prosperity - the solution lies in really taking advantage of freedom and prosperity and realizing that the quality of your existence is in your own hands. It also lies in realizing that your own hands were not made to control other people's existence. I believe I'm speaking about the basic liberal, social contract.

Randll Reese Besch - 8/18/2007

United Statesans aren't enjoying a hight level of properity and freedom.
Sounds like the same empty mantra I hear out of the gov't and their party organs like CNN & Fox News. The ongoing invisible recession and even more invisible depression that is rotting this nation from within is accelerating with the prime lending debacle. Both hightech and lowtech jobs either being sold overseas or insourced here for plunging rates of pay. At the other end illegal immigrants take poorer to low wage work as the "middle class" is being eviserated in record time. In so doing payrates are rapidly lowering to unlivable levels. Increasingly the rank and file see what is happening despite the rosey propoganda to the contrary.So many empty store fronts.
Just imagine the 1929 crash but with jobs being out/insourced with wild abandoned. We won't rebound the way it happened in 1929 for we are in a wholley different economic circumstances. A debter nation since the Reagan years and climbing. Military belligerance,religious fanaticism {Christian too} and nationalism stir a toxic mixture.