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
Add to Briefcase
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.

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.

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.

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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