Political analysts and pundits obsess about America’s collective psychological temperature. They closely monitor polls showing our outlook for the future and watch our evaluation of institutions. Is the country headed in the right direction or wrong direction? Do you approve or disapprove of the president? What about Congress? Data from the past six years paints a disquieting portrait.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks — despite relatively sunny economic conditions — Americans are progressively gloomy when it comes to the future and our political institutions. Right track/wrong track numbers, as well as presidential and congressional approval, are not only “off track,” but in the ditch.
Opinions on these questions are important for a variety of reasons, including their connection to electoral politics. For example, while the relationship between congressional approval and elections is a little more complicated, trends in right direction/wrong direction and presidential approval have pretty clear connections to the ballot box.
So as we move into an election year, the amount of data on questions like these is bound to grow exponentially. In this context, an interesting pattern in these numbers deserves mention.
While Americans seem collectively critical, pessimistic and grumpy about the nation and its institutions in general, they offer a more positive outlook on their own personal situations. Consider education. According to Gallup polling, only 46 percent are completely or somewhat satisfied with the quality of K-12 education that students receive in the United States today, but 78 percent of parents are completely or somewhat satisfied with the quality of education their oldest child receives.
The same holds true when it comes to the economy. Only 38 percent say economic conditions in the country are getting better, but 65 percent say they personally will be better off financially at this time next year.
Health care follows a similar pattern: 53 percent believe the quality of health care in this country is excellent or good. On the other hand, 79 percent say they personally receive excellent or good health care. Moreover, while only 19 percent say they are satisfied with the total cost of health care in this country, 54 percent say they are satisfied with the total cost they pay for their own health care.
These numbers stand in line with another generalization about Washington found in many polls over the years — people have a lot more affection for their own congressman than they do for Congress as an institution.
As a nation, we seem to subscribe to a variation on the old self-help book: “I’m OK, You’re Not.”
Space limitations preclude me from exploring these differences in too much detail, but readers of surveys should keep this general pattern in mind as the volume of polling results escalates the closer we get to the election. Americans appear more negative and pessimistic when researchers pose questions about other people and institutions. But they tend to answer more positively when the questions are personalized.