Wednesday, August 27, 2008

We have opinions, part 2

Part 1 here. In this political season, Pew Research has made available a massive Convention Backgrounder presenting findings about citizen attitudes on a huge array of issues and concerns. The project is designed to compare Republicans, Democrats and independents, but on many topics the aggregate figure strikes me as more interesting than the minor differences. I'll only break out party differences where they seem significant. Here are some of the more interesting items that I've put into categories (don't blame Pew for these).

Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.
Disagree: 68 percent
Hard work offers little guarantee of success.
Disagree: 69 percent
Now there are a couple of mutually incompatible beliefs. We know we don't control our successes; but we also think if we just try hard enough we can make it. Ever wonder why there's an undercurrent of rage in our civic life? If you believe both these things, and a majority do, you are committed to a set-up for frustration.

The strength of this country today is mostly based on the success of American business.
Agree: 73 percent
There is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies.
Agree: 77 percent
There's another painful double bind: business as source of well-being but also as oppressive, controlling monster.

The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep.
Agree: 66 percent
This figure does conceal a partisan disagreement. Fifty-six percent of Republicans disagree.

Labor unions are necessary to protect the working person.
Agree: 67 percent
Even Republicans agree with this one. It will be interesting to see whether this sentiment has enough juice behind it so that if we get an Obama presidency, a Democratic Congress will pass laws that undo some of the obstacles forty years of right wing ascendancy have put in the way of workers trying to unionize.

The federal government should run ONLY those things that cannot be run at the local level.
Agree: 76 percent
There's a deep suspicion in that answer that the Feds are not on our side, that the federal government is not US -- not something we make that does our bidding. We apparently have more trust in local governments. There was not a question about whether state and local governments do a good job. This would be more meaningful to me if I had that comparative data.

It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves.
Agree: 68 percent
This is a pretty strong approval for a position that seems to have very little influence in the day to day workings of government. But it is good to know this is the default position.

We have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country.
Disagree: 54 percent
That seems to indicate pretty weak support for the opposing view -- that we should work to extend rights. The question didn't specify what rights for who. And the percent who disagree here masks the fact that 61 percent of Republicans do think we've "gone too far" with rights, whatever they mean by this.

Discrimination against blacks is rare today.
Disagree: 64 percent
We should make every possible effort to improve the position of blacks and other minorities.
Disagree: 67 percent
So we believe there is discrimination (and presumably we don't think that is okay) but by an even larger margin, we don't want to make an effort to do something to correct it. Schizophrenic, perhaps? And certainly crazy making for those living on the wrong end of that contradiction. (As far as I can figure out, the sample for this poll included people of color.)

We should restrict and control people coming into our country to live more than we do now.
Agree: 78 percent
Obviously, we're in a serious panic about newcomers. At this moment, we're a nation of immigrants who prize the country where we've climbed the ladder of success -- and we want to haul that ladder up after us right now. This sentiment is apparently fully bipartisan, but the way.

Occasional acts of terrorism in the US will be part of life in the future.
Agree: 72 percent
Seven years after 9/11, we're still very scared. This is probably rational. Though the U.S. has spread carnage through Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, we've probably done more to create an environment in which terrorism can grow in those places than to prevent it. Certainly the people of those countries would say that.

The police should be allowed to search the houses of people who might be sympathetic to terrorists without a court order.
Disagree: 63 percent
Our fear is not, however, so great that we are completely ready to give up our civil liberties. We just might consider giving up someone else's civil liberties though...

It's best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs.
Agree: 90 percent
We should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.
Agree: 74 percent
I find the first of these statements stunning given our notorious indifference to and ignorance of the rest of the world. Evidently, we belief we ought to be more concerned. The second statement seems more like the U.S. attitudes that I see.

People like me do not have a say about what the government does.
Disagree: 51 percent
We're unsure, verging on doubtful, that our views make a difference, but ...
Voting gives people like me some say about how government runs things.
Agree: 76 percent
This later statement reads to me like an affirmation of a civic myth -- a formula people are schooled to recite, seldom checking it against their lived experience which is more reflected in the first one. But that also means they want it to be true.

I feel it is my duty as a citizen to always vote.
Agree: 96 percent
Hey, hat's off to grade school teachers everywhere. They are obviously doing a marvelous job of schooling children in the national civic myths. In a country where election turnout is frequently 50 percent of eligible voters, or well below, this is a remarkable result. Half or more of the respondents are saying they are not doing what they consider a duty.

This has practical implications. How does the discrepancy between what people think is right and what they do make people feel? When we canvass for an election, what demons are we poking when we try to activate unlikely voters? In East Lansing in 2006, a consultant ran an interesting experiment trying to increase turnout. He mailed 80,000 registered persons a letter explaining that their voting patterns (whether they turned out) were part of a study. On some of the letters, he rubbed in his ability to monitor their behavior from public records by reproducing their past record for several years.

"I'm studying the effect knowing that your voting is public has on participation," [Mark] Grebner says. "So the first step is to make it public. Maybe it will create rivalries over who has the best voter record on the block."

I bet this works. People want to think of themselves as voters.

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