Mood of the country: 'anxiety-ridden'

Monday, October 10th, 2011 

Even though high rates of foreclosures, bank failures and job losses translate into pessimism, the nation is not necessarily in its most glum state ever. “People think their particular time is the worst time in history probably … but it’s been bleak at other times,” said Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor-in-chief and an expert on public opinion.

“It’s hard to quantify exactly what it was that was causing the great angst at those periods of time versus the current period of time,” Newport said in a recent interview. But to look at Gallup’s data since the recession began, including its Well-Being Index created through interviews with 1,000 U.S. adults every day, is to see a country struggling. The Investigative Reporting Workshop asked Gallup what the sum of all this polling says about our collective mood.

However, Newport said it’s hard to label the mood because “we don’t have the precise same measures across all those times, particularly personal financial measures, so it’s hard to quantify to what degree then people were concerned about specifics like their house and the mortgage. Data we do have show the economy was the major problem in a broad sense in these previous epochs like in the Truman years, the Carter years, in the late Bush HW years. People were very concerned about the economy.”


Frank Newport


What troubles Newport now is Americans’ loss of confidence in government — the federal government in general and the legislative branch in particular. Newport, the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People, said when Gallup asked respondents to describe the federal government in one word or phrase, 7 in 10 used a word that was clearly negative.  People referred to the government as incompetent, confused and corrupt.

“So we have a lot of economic anxiety,” he said, with people on the right tending to displace that anxiety onto government. “And not necessarily because it’s big, but I think it’s leading to an increasing perception that the government’s ineffective. And not just ideological, but that they’re bunglers. And that worries people, I think,” he said. Those on the left displace their anxiety toward big corporations and Wall Street: “Anything with ‘big’ in front of it is the target: Big government. Big business,” he said.

Yet people express a complex duality when it comes to satisfaction with their lives. “We are much more optimistic personally,” he said, than we are about the nation. Only 16 percent say they are satisfied with the way things are going for the country compared to 80 percent who say they are satisfied with the way things are going personally. When Gallup has asked about satisfaction on such issues as crime, schools and health care, for example, people say,  “‘My kids’ school is great. But schools are terrible across the country,'" Newport said, and they even say they like their individual member of Congress. But as a whole, Congress ranks at the bottom of institutions that people have confidence in. 

“We’re anxiety-ridden in part because the media tells us that we should be,” he said, and that’s partly because “there’s a strong inclination to report on what’s unusual or different or bad.”

But even with high unemployment, “Most of us go through our daily lives OK,” Newport noted. “We have jobs. We have health insurance. We have friends. We have family. We kind of enjoy what we do. But we’re bombarded with discussions that things are terrible, coming through in the media and political arguing and things. Intermingled with that is reality. … Our data show most people know somebody who’s unemployed or been laid off.” 

“Americans have a norm of equity, which has been well-established by social psychologists, where they do believe it’s appropriate to have more on the one hand as long as you’ve entered more on the input side," he said. "You can make a lot of money if you’ve put appropriate inputs on the other side. But coupled with that there’s a continuing perception that there’s too much inequality in a broad sense.”

People still want to tax the rich — those making more than $250,000 annually. “But taxing the rich is different than saying they deserve it,” he said. “You can say, ‘I’m perfectly happy that Tom Brady of the New England Patriots signed a new $70 million contract. However, I’m also perfectly happy if he has to pay 5 percent more on everything he makes… ‘He’s welcome to it but he should just give a little more of it’ is probably how I’d typify where Americans are,” said Newport, who has managed Gallup since 1991.

And with continued problems of high unemployment and underemployment — a measure of people who are working part time but want to work full time — what has been billed as the recovery still feels to some like the Great Recession. “It’s the perception of momentum rather than absolute that matters,” said Newport. “They want light at the end of the tunnel.”  

What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.


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The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.