Of the People, by the People, for the People

The latest Heartland Monitor Poll finds Americans looking to each other to lead the country forward.

National Journal
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Ronald Brownstein
May 9, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

Change that Lasts National Journal

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.


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).


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.

From the Bottom Up National Journal

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.


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.

The Limits of Individual Action National Journal

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.


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.

Contributions by Stephanie Czekalinsk

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