Jewish World Review Aug. 3, 1999 /21 Av, 5759
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- AS WE MOVE TOWARD a most important political year, it is wise to listen to the voters, most particularly about their core beliefs. One appropriate tool is the public-opinion poll, when executed with honor by practitioners with no axe to grind.
By huge majorities, Americans believe their country is the best on earth.
They believe that it stands for something very special. And they believe that they know the reasons why, which turn out to be that same old stuff: political, personal and economic liberty under a constitution. All this according to serious new polls from serious survey researchers.
In earlier times such findings might not be thought unusual. But consider how remarkable, perhaps awe-inspiring, such views are when seen against the backdrop of what has been stressed in America about life in America during the last third of a century.
There were assassinations, deemed to be the fruit of American extremism and violence. There was a war in Vietnam, supported reluctantly by most Americans, but trumpeted as immoral by many in the mainstream media and the academy. There was presidential skullduggery and criminality during Watergate, blown out of proportion as a near-fascist threat to constitutional government. At about that time the history text books began changing. It became quite trendy to teach American history with a disparaging sneer. Columbus was a rotten rat. Jefferson was a slave-holder who sired offspring by a slave woman. The settlement of the West was genocide. America was an imperialist, racist, sexist, homophobic nation.
A decade of stagflation was followed, so we were told, by a decade of greed. We are regularly informed that our politicians are bums, scrounging for money from special interests. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer.
Even prosperity doesn't help; now we stand accused of spending our money to despoil virgin land in the service of scuzzy suburban sprawl. We are even the principal agents for heating up our planet! We are told that it is a cynical time, lacking trust.
Conservatives condemned America-bashing, but simultaneously hollered that crime was manifest, welfare was abused, that illegitimacy was soaring (a more accurate portrait, by my neo-conservative lights).
Yet, consider "A Lot to be Thankful For," a new and comprehensive survey by Public Agenda (PA), whose president, Daniel Yankelovich, has been a distinguished survey researcher of independent mien. The PA study shows that Americans very clearly have minds of their own, notwithstanding the negative force-feeding. And on many big matters their minds are made up, and close to unanimously. The first survey offered by the PA study shows that 84 percent of respondents think theirs "is a unique country that stands for something special in the world," versus only 13 percent who say America "is just another country whose system is no better or worse than other countries." That uniqueness clearly has a salutary cast: 90 percent believe "the U.S. is a better country than most other countries in the world."
But why? Turn now to "Public Perspectives on the 20th Century," a new study by the Pew Research Center, whose director is Andrew Kohut, formerly president of the Gallup Organization. Respondents were asked for the reasons they thought America had been successful during the 20th century. The top three responses were "our Constitution (85 percent)," "free elections" (84 percent), and the "free enterprise system" (81 percent).
Such results might be expected from generations brought up on McGuffey's Reader. But those times are long gone. Yet the two polls have, variously, separate data for young, old and middle-aged; whites, blacks, Hispanics and foreign born; Republican, Democrat and Independent. There is little variance. There is an American culture, and most all Americans know what it is.
There are some lessons to be learned from the surveys:
1. The mainstream media do not control the culture.
Do not think these responses come from people who hear, see and speak no evil. Large majorities (89 percent) believe that "the government sometimes lies to the public about what is really going on," that "minorities often get treated unfairly in this country" (70 percent), that "America is losing its identity, beliefs and values" (61 percent), that "Americans are materialistic and care too much about buying things" (90 percent), and that "life for teen-agers has gotten worse since the 1950s" (52 percent). They don't like credit cards, telemarketing, HMOs, the cloning of sheep or rap music. They love e-mail, mutual funds, the 'Net, cell phones and cable TV.
It has become fashionable to criticize public-opinion polling. But when
executed with honor and sensitivity, such research can be valuable. That is
particularly so if it leads us to begin a political year in the appropriate
manner, hearing the voice of the people regarding their bedrock