This article is part of a series on the May 2014 Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll.
Daniel Russell has no patience for people who consider the federal government the root of all evil. A 32-year-old IT technician at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, he's fond of citing the many examples of government-funded basic scientific research—such as the project that laid the foundation for the Internet—that later led to big commercial breakthroughs. "Some of the time, the things the government thinks up are passed on to corporations … and the corporations get all the credit for it," he says. "People say, 'Aw, man, the government hasn't done anything for us.' I'm like, 'Look at your shoes, look at your car.' "
And yet, Russell understands why people get frustrated with how long it takes for Washington to do just about anything. He sees how red tape and bureaucracy can stifle new thinking for so long that by the time it moves forward, it "might not be relevant" anymore. It's easier, he agrees, to make change closer to home, through more direct action, such as the conservation efforts he joined as a teenager or the voting-participation drives he helped lead in college. "The lower number of humans something impacts," Russell says, "the easier the change is."
But just because it's easier to influence local institutions, Russell says, that doesn't mean Americans should abandon the hope of reforming the bigger ones that shape so much of national life, such as the federal government or major corporations. "The truth is that nobody has a great track record. An institution may fail, but the true measure of failure is, do you get back up and try to fix it?" he says. "If you have a level of mistrust in something, then take it on yourself to find out why and fix it."
Russell's careful assessment captures the nuanced attitudes that ripple through the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, which measured Americans' views on the opportunities for, and obstacles facing, political and social change.
The survey found that most Americans believe they can have the greatest influence over issues in their own neighborhood; that local institutions such as community groups are doing the most to improve life in America; and that lasting change is more likely to emerge from movements led by ordinary citizens than to be imposed by government or business leaders. But the poll also found that while people see significant opportunities to better conditions through local involvement and voluntary action, most believe that improving American life on a broader scale will ultimately require changes in national policies and institutions.
Asked what "would do most to make a meaningful and lasting impact on issues you care about," just over half picked "a change in national policy"—far more than the roughly one-sixth who picked changes either in local policies or in the way companies do business. Likewise, a solid majority rejected the idea that the federal government was so broken that it wasn't worth trying to influence or improve it.
These bookended findings point to deep public reserves of both engagement and alienation. On the one hand, they suggest that many Americans see great opportunities for ordinary citizens to make a difference, particularly at the local level, on the biggest challenges facing the country. On the other, they indicate that most Americans believe those challenges can't be truly tamed without changes in the major public and private institutions that people broadly distrust and consider unresponsive to their concerns. At a moment of widespread anxiety over the country's direction, these precariously balanced attitudes suggest that the coming years in American politics could tip either toward deeper disengagement, distrust, and polarization, or toward a revitalized commitment to national renewal that flows from the grassroots up. Russell is one of many poll respondents who are hoping for the latter. "Don't just sit there and scream," he says. "You've got to move if it's something you're passionate about. Martin Luther King didn't just sit there. He moved. That's what it is going to take."
This survey is the 20th in a series exploring how average Americans are living through the Great Recession and its aftermath. The poll was conducted April 9-13, with 1,000 respondents reached by landline and cell phones. The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly, Brent McGoldrick, Jeremy Ruch, and Jocelyn Landau of the Strategic Communications practice of FTI Consulting, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
HEADED THE WRONG WAY
The survey leaves little doubt that Americans—across partisan, generational, and racial lines—are deeply concerned about the country's direction. When asked to think "very broadly about things in the United States today," fully 70 percent of those polled said the country "needs major changes," while only 25 percent said it needs "minor changes." Just 3 percent said "things should stay [the] same."
Partisan attitudes somewhat shaded those results, with Republicans more likely than independents or Democrats to call for major changes, but nearly three-fifths of Democrats also did so. Similarly, older Americans were more likely than younger people to urge major changes, but even about three-fifths of adults under 30 said they saw that need. And while whites have consistently displayed more pessimism about the country's trajectory in previous Heartland Monitor polls, on this latest question nonwhites were about as likely as whites to believe the country needed major change.
The picture wasn't much brighter when respondents were asked to assess the nation's direction on 15 specific issues. Only on two of them did a majority say the country was heading in the right direction: On "ensuring equal rights for all Americans," 51 percent said the country was moving on a positive path, compared with 42 percent who thought it was on the wrong track; on "producing more domestic sources of energy," the numbers were 51 percent positive and 40 percent negative. A 48 percent to 44 percent plurality also rendered a positive verdict for "protecting the environment."
On all 12 of the other issues, more people believed the country was moving in the wrong direction rather than the right one. Only on three did even two-fifths of Americans see conditions improving: reducing crime and domestic violence (44 percent); improving access to health care and controlling costs (42 percent); and improving the quality of K-12 education (40 percent.) But a slight plurality—47 percent—thought the country was moving in the wrong direction on violence, and 53 percent majorities rendered negative verdicts on health care and education.
Even smaller percentages of those surveyed said the country was moving in the right direction on the remaining issues tested, from expanding the economy and creating jobs to protecting individual liberties. Preponderant majorities of at least three-fifths or more saw the country hurtling down the wrong track on maintaining the affordability of college education; reducing poverty; reducing taxes and government spending; and protecting Americans' privacy.
Partisan differences, not surprisingly, showed up in these results. On every question, many more Democrats than Republicans saw positive progress; independents sorted in between, but usually fell closer to the pessimistic Republican view than to the optimistic Democratic perspective. On the core question of expanding the economy and creating jobs, for instance, two-thirds of Democrats said they see the country moving in the right direction, compared with just 16 percent of Republicans; independents tilted closer to the Republicans, with just 34 percent perceiving progress.
The partisan differences were more muted, though, when those respondents who said the country needed change were asked who should lead that effort. Democrats (at 26 percent) were more likely than Republicans (17 percent) or independents (16 percent) to point toward the federal government. But the largest share of all three groups looked mostly toward average Americans. Overall, 42 percent of those who said the country needs change said average Americans should spearhead that change, while 21 percent picked state and local government, 19 percent selected the federal government, and 7 percent chose companies and business. These results varied strikingly little, as well, across racial and generational lines (although adults under 30 were especially unlikely to point toward Washington, and somewhat more inclined to look toward state and local government).
BEING THE CHANGE
That inclination to look toward average Americans or local institutions strikes one of the survey's central chords: a consistent orientation toward change led from below. That attitude expresses itself in everything from support for voluntarism, to the conviction that smaller, human-scale institutions are making a more positive impact on the country than are the behemoths of big business and the federal government, to the belief that the daily choices people make can cumulate into broader social change.
Carolyn Roberts, a 29-year-old receptionist in Birmingham, Ala., who participated in the poll, expresses a view common among respondents when she says she believes that Americans have more power than they recognize to improve the country just by making changes in the way they live on a daily basis. "Environmentally, we can make a difference: You'd be surprised by the number of people who litter or don't recycle or don't get their car's emissions tested," she says. "There's plenty of things we can do to improve the larger picture. You're one person, but if everyone was taking the same action … we could improve so many different things."
The confidence expressed by Roberts and Russell about the capacity of individuals to drive positive change, particularly through actions close to home, echoes through many of the survey's results.
Asked what was most likely to "make a meaningful and lasting impact on issues you care about," more respondents picked "a social movement started by average Americans" (42 percent) than electing more public officials "who agree with me on the issues" (32 percent), much less "a public-private partnership between government and business" (9 percent) or "a public initiative launched by business" (8 percent).
Americans again displayed a tilt toward direct action when asked to assess the effectiveness of six options for "promoting change on issues you care about." By far, the most respondents (36 percent) picked "taking direct action like volunteering" as a "very effective" way to drive change; "using your buying power" to influence companies' business practices, another form of direct action, finished next at 23 percent.
Interviews with Gary Brafflett, a retired utility worker in Hudson, Maine, and Joseph Vaughn, an independent research consultant in Las Vegas, both of whom participated in the survey, support these findings. Brafflett says he still thinks fondly of his years working with a local hospital and Kiwanis Club. "I felt that we were having a positive impact," he said. "I felt like we were listening to the people on whose behalf we were working." Vaughn says he is disciplined about spending his money with companies that reflect his values or are rooted in his community. "If I've got a choice, I go to somebody who is small and local," he says. "I believe in feeding the people who feed you." Vaughn stays away from several of the big-box discount retailers that he thinks treat their workers unfairly. "It's not huge, it may not make a [big] difference, but it's all I can do," he says.
Americans were less likely to rate as very effective other traditional forms of political engagement, such as "organizing other people to express similar views" (20 percent); volunteering or contributing to elect like-minded candidates (19 percent); or participating in a protest or posting views online through social media (12 percent each).
When asked about their personal participation in activities that have the potential to drive change, 70 percent of those polled said they vote in elections very often. Considerably smaller, if still substantial, percentages said they engaged "very often" in any other civic activity. About one in three said they frequently share opinions on social networks; about one in four said they frequently volunteer. Roughly one in four also said they make purchases based on a company's business practices and issue positions, or donate money to community organizations. No more than one in 11 said they frequently engaged in any of the other options listed, including attending community meetings, writing elected officials, publicly sharing their opinions (by posting online or writing to a newspaper), donating money to a political or issue campaign, volunteering in such campaigns, or attending rallies.
Americans may not be attending a lot of community meetings, but running alongside their bent toward direct action is a belief in the power of acting locally. Fully 60 percent of those surveyed said they believed "that average Americans … through their own actions" can make a "great deal" of difference on issues facing their local communities. Only half as many—30 percent—said they believed that average Americans could exert a great deal of influence on issues facing the country, and just one in five said they thought they could shape issues facing the world to that extent.
Strikingly, Republicans, Democrats, and independents all broke in almost exactly those same proportions. Young people were somewhat more likely than those over 50 to believe they could exert influence at all three levels, but especially locally.
Julia Osbekoff, a 28-year-old homemaker and student in Snoqualmie, Wash., was one of many respondents who said they believe local institutions are much more responsive to average people than national ones are. "I see it working more at the community level," she says. "The closer you are to someone, the stronger you feel an obligation to follow through on the promises you make."
These intersecting attitudes about direct and local action came together in the answers to three summary questions that asked respondents to consider the kinds of change that might most improve their own lives.
Asked what would have the most positive impact on their day-to-day life, a solid 56 percent majority picked "an increase in people volunteering in your community," while only 39 percent said "electing a president who agrees with you on the issues." Even more emphatically, on the second question, 74 percent of those surveyed said that "major social changes … in this country," such as civil rights and women's rights, have happened more because of "average Americans leading on the issue and pushing government" to respond; just 18 percent said such change has occurred mostly from "government leading on the issue by setting policy before a national consensus emerged."
The belief that big social change usually bubbles up from below crossed almost all traditional political divides. That view was shared by 83 percent of Republicans, 78 percent of Democrats, and 75 percent of independents, as well as 77 percent of whites and 71 percent of nonwhites.
More-familiar cleavages emerged on the question that tested local versus national inclinations by pitting the value of voluntarism against that of a sympathetic president. Most Republicans, likely reflecting their frustration about the party's exile from the White House since 2008, said electing a president who agrees with them on the issues would improve their life most, while about three-fifths of independents and almost two-thirds of Democrats said that more voluntarism in their community would help more. Likewise, nonwhites were even more likely than whites to see a bigger payoff in more voluntarism. The tilt was even greater along generational lines: While almost half of those over 50 saw the most impact from electing a sympathetic president, only about one-fourth of those under 30 agreed. Nearly three-fourths of those young adults (compared with only 45 percent of those over 50) believed that more voluntarism in their community would do more to improve their life.
But the response to the third question bounded the sentiment evident in the first two answers—and reflects the limits of the belief in the direct and the local that ripples through the survey. Here, most Americans rejected the idea that government has grown so dysfunctional that only renewal from below has a realistic chance of improving American life. Just 39 percent agreed that "government is broken … so the best way to have a positive impact is for people to group together and take direct action in their own communities." A strong 55 percent majority endorsed the competing view that "government may not be working very well, but the best way to affect the most people possible is for people to participate in the democratic process and make government work better."
That response points toward the second major theme in the results. When it comes to the role of national institutions in driving change, the poll suggests that most Americans hold a view similar to the one Winston Churchill famously expressed about democracy when he called it the worst form of government—except for all of the others. Americans in the poll express little faith in national institutions, but believe that engaging with and reforming them is the only way to solve the country's most pressing problems.
THE NATIONAL CHALLENGE
It's difficult to overstate the depth of alienation from, and distrust of, major institutions that rings through this latest Heartland Monitor Poll. Like earlier installments in the series, this poll captures a powerful sense among ordinary Americans that in confronting the complex challenges of modern life, they are fundamentally paddling alone, with little help from any entity outside of their immediate circle of friends, family, and community.
This discontent roars through questions that asked respondents whether they believed each of 16 groups and institutions was mostly helping or mostly hurting efforts to address the major challenges facing the country. Only two of the 16 groups received a "mostly helping" rating from a majority of those polled. Each was locally focused: community groups (66 percent) and small business organizations (64 percent). Church and religious organizations (at 46 percent) ranked next, but even they didn't receive a majority endorsement.
Just three other groups received more positive than negative responses: state and local government (39 percent helping versus 33 percent hurting); average Americans (39 percent helping, 17 percent hurting); and social activists (35 percent helping, 34 percent hurting.) When assessing every other group's impact, more people picked hurting than helping. Those judgments ranged from a fairly close split on labor unions (32 percent helping, 38 percent hurting) to lopsidedly negative assessments of large corporations (25 percent helping, 53 percent hurting), the federal government (21 percent helping, 58 percent hurting), wealthy political donors (19 percent helping, 54 percent hurting), lobbyists (11 percent helping, 59 percent hurting) and, on the lowest shelf, political parties (12 percent helping, 63 percent hurting).
Across the board, most respondents also said they believed large institutions are growing less responsive and receptive to the concerns of average Americans. Only about one in eight of those polled said the federal government is "more responsive … to the opinions of average Americans" than it was in previous generations; just over three in five said they thought it less responsive, while the remaining roughly one-fourth saw no difference.
The discontent with Washington, not surprisingly, was most visceral among conservatives such as Republican Bill Speer of Orville, Calif. "There's a lot of waste and a lot of fraud and a lot of being unaccountable with the taxpayers' money," he says. "People getting big bonuses and big parties.… They're not being diligent with the taxpayers' money on a lot of things." But even core Democratic constituencies—including minorities, millennials, and college-educated white women—were more likely to view the federal government as being less, rather than more, responsive than it was in the past by substantial margins.
Large companies drew almost exactly the same verdict. Just over one in eight of those surveyed said big businesses now operate with "more concern … for average Americans than they did in previous generations," while about three-fifths said they were operating with less concern, and the remaining one-fourth saw little difference. For good measure, a solid three-fifths majority said that when they see companies sponsor a community event or charity, they view it as "a way for the company to advertise and appear to care about more than making money," while only about three in 10 considered it "a genuine attempt by the company to give back to the public and drive social change."
State and local governments did better, but only relatively: About one in five respondents saw them as more responsive than in previous generations, compared with just over two in five who considered them less responsive. The remaining roughly one-third saw no difference.
The poll found evidence that many Americans see potential over time for the Internet and social media to increase citizens' influence over business and government by enabling average people to more easily make their views heard. On one question, by 41 percent to 31 percent, a small plurality said they believed that average Americans have more ability to make a difference on issues they care about than in previous generations. But most respondents appear to believe that this enhanced capacity to communicate is outweighed by a decline in the willingness of big institutions to listen. On another question, with slightly different wording, 51 percent said they thought it was growing more difficult "for average Americans to make a difference on issues" while only 9 percent thought it was "becoming easier."
A final question asked respondents directly whether they thought advances in information technology would yield more influence for ordinary citizens or leave big institutions more remote and less responsive. Given those choices, 41 percent said they believe "average people will become more and more connected through the Internet and will be able to more easily group together on important issues and cause change." But a 52 percent majority said they expected that "government and business will become more removed from average people and will make more decisions without the input or knowledge of the public."
Somewhat surprisingly, young people were not more optimistic than older generations about technology's ability to empower individuals: 50 percent of respondents under 30, compared with 54 percent of them over 50, said they expect government and business to grow more disconnected. Nor did whites and minorities differ much in that pessimistic assessment, though a partisan split did emerge: Three-fifths of Democrats took the hopeful view that technology will enable individuals, while about three-fifths of Republicans and independents said they expected institutions to grow more remote.
And still, for all of these deep and reinforcing doubts about government, business, and other big institutions, most Americans believe the country's greatest challenges—and the potential to address them—lie at the national level. Almost three-fifths of those polled said they are most concerned about "issues facing the country"—far more than picked issues facing the world (one in four) or their own community (just under one in six).
"I probably don't have too much interaction at the local level; I'm not as aware of how the local level affects me," says John Daly, a cable-television technician who lives in Philadelphia. "The federal level is probably the foundation of where everything we do comes from."
Likewise, when asked what "would do [the] most to make a meaningful and lasting impact on issues you care about," a 53 percent majority said "a change in national policy." Far fewer picked changes in the way companies do business (16 percent), a change in policies in their community (15 percent), or a change in international policies (12 percent). Some of this preference undoubtedly reflects current political circumstances: Republicans and whites, who generally express discontent with President Obama, are more likely to see national policies as key, while Democrats and minorities, who are generally more satisfied with him, lean relatively more toward changes in local policies or business behavior.
Yet the survey and follow-up interviews with respondents capture a simultaneous yearning and skepticism about national revival that extends far beyond tactical partisan advantage.
OBSTACLES AND OPPORTUNITIES
Several of those who responded to the poll spoke in strikingly eloquent terms about the many barriers that prevent Americans from working together on the country's challenges.
Russell, the IT technician at the Oak Ridge labs, says political polarization, encouraged by adversarial media, prevents Americans from recognizing how many interests they share. "In the U.S., folks a lot of times agree with each other, but the way we communicate inhibits that," he says. "It's sad. In a lot of cases, people come up with a solution on an issue and the other side won't even hear it."
Phyllis, a retired teacher in Birmingham, Ala., says that lower-income families often feel intimidated about defending their interests, even when it comes to ensuring that their children get the most from school. "People who do not have a lot of educational credits feel like [they should be] listening to those who do," she says. "They're made to feel that way; they're hesitant to push."
Daly, the cable technician, says the political and media dialogue too rarely shows examples of individuals making change in ways that might inspire others to try. "You never see anything about how things changed because of a person's voice," he says. "It's all about law and numbers, but the humanity of the situation gets lost…. You read about police brutality, and how people are screwed over by different businesses or companies, but you never see anything about change enacted by a person's experience."
Like much of the poll, these voices suggest that while partisan division has utterly stalemated Washington—and polarization is intensifying even in most state capitals—many Americans are still looking for ways to constructively chip away at the enormous challenges they see confronting their country. The open question is whether that bottom-up energy eventually cleanses the toxic atmosphere in national life, or whether the overwhelming disenchantment with the public and private national leadership ultimately extinguishes the spark of renewal glimmering at the grassroots.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed to this article.
This article appears in the May 10, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as We the People.