In a new survey, a non-profit organization called PRRI put an interesting spin on the traditional “right track, wrong track” polling question by asking if “American culture and way of life have changed for the worse or better since the 1950s.” It turns out a slim majority think the Fifties were better, by 51% to 48%.
This is a new angle because pollsters usually ask if the country is on the “wrong track” without giving a specific example of what the “right track” would look like. They ask if the country is getting “worse” in some general sense, without asking the respondents to imagine what “better” would look like.
The standard right-track/wrong-track question was asked, too, and 74% said America is “seriously off on the wrong track, a much higher level of pessimism than PRRI found in 2012.
The poll’s internals put the question in the context of the current election by noting that 72% of declared Donald Trump supporters thought American “society and way of life” have changed for the worse over the past 60 years, while a comparable percentage of Hillary Clinton’s voters (70%) say they have changed for the better.
Racial and class divisions were visible in the responses as well. Sixty-two percent of black respondents and 57% of Hispanics said things have gotten better since the Fifties, while 56% of whites said the reverse. However, 56% of college-educated whites said better, while 65% of “white working-class Americans” said worse.
White evangelical Protestants reportedly had the most dour view of social evolution since the Fifties, with 74% of them saying culture has changed for the worse.
Those who feel American culture and politics have taken a wrong turn expressed a strong sense of frustration and alienation in various other poll questions. Forty-six percent of poll respondents endorsed the notion of “a leader who is willing to break some rules, if that’s what it takes to set things right,” with 55% of declared Republicans supporting that idea. Sixty-one percent of respondents said neither major party represents their views any more, a 13-point increase since 1990. Clinton and Trump both have historically low approval ratings for presidential candidates, although Clinton fares better on most attributes. Fifty-seven percent said big money has so much influence on elections that their vote scarcely matters. Only 43% of respondents expressed a great deal of confidence that their votes would be counted accurately.
(In an interesting side note to that last dismal statistic, respondents were evenly divided about whether illegal voters, or eligible voters unfairly denied the right to vote, were a more serious problem, but only 9% thought “voter apathy” was the biggest problem with American elections. The media and political class thinks voter apathy is a much bigger problem than the actual electorate does.)
To be sure, the terms in many of these questions are highly subjective. “Since the 1950s, do you think American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the better, or has it mostly changed for the worse?” is a very big question, especially given that many of the poll respondents weren’t around during the Fifties and Sixties.
Younger people on the Left side of the American political spectrum are generally given a negative view of the Fifties, especially with respect to racism and stodgy, judgmental “Ozzie and Harriet” culture, while the late Sixties are seen as a mystical transformative experience. Young people on the Right are more likely to hear about the virtues of those earlier times, or to be concerned about modern trends in divorce, illegitimacy, and middle-class career anxiety. Both the good and bad things happened, of course, but a holistic view of a half-century’s worth of culture will depend on emphasis.
It seems likely that if most people on the Right were asked what “going back to the Fifties” would mean, they’d talk about restoring family and community values, strengthening the rule of law, and shoring up the economy for working-class people, but they wouldn’t want to repeal the Civil Rights Act. On the other hand, ask the average campus liberal what going back to the Fifties means, and “turning back the clock” on civil rights, or gay rights, will be a common, contemptuous response.
It’s curious to think that our supposedly tolerant friends on the Left would take pleasure in the notion of white Christians feeling marginalized and frustrated, as such a poll suggests. Shouldn’t Utopia have a place for them, too? Even if they were a tiny minority, shouldn’t their views be respected in a vibrant and healthy Republic? (Follow-up question: how many generations do they have to be marginalized and powerless before they’re no longer considered “oppressors” who can be discriminated against with abandon by our political system?)
There will be a temptation for liberals to denounce this Republican affection for the Fifties as incoherent, dreamy nostalgia, but there are plenty of social indicators that are empirically worse today. We should be able to preserve what’s good about the present without abandoning the wisdom of the past, on subjects where the “wrong track” can be mapped with hard, cold statistics.
Another debatable assertion is that support for a leader “willing to break some rules, if that’s what it takes to set things right” equals an embrace of “authoritarianism,” as PRRI puts it. For one thing, that’s not the definition of authoritarianism. A nation can sink very far into authoritarian hell under leadership that doesn’t actually break its own rules.
More to the point, we’re emerging from eight years under a leader, President Barack Obama, who most certainly does believe he should “break some rules, if that’s what it takes to set things right.” It’s the defining characteristic of his presidency. He’s come very close to using those exact words on many occasions, when pushing his notion of a unitary executive who shouldn’t have to put up with “gridlock” and “obstructionism,” no matter what the rules say, including the Constitution.
Some Republicans who responded positively to the idea of a leader who breaks the rules to do what’s right are merely asking for leadership that fights on Obama’s terms, or accepting that Obama’s actions have permanently redefined the role of the President.
Conversely, very few Obama supporters would agree that his “breaking the rules to set things right” makes him an authoritarian. If the Trump-Clinton contest leads to a great national bipartisan conversation on the evils of authoritarianism, it will have a silver lining.
Take all the responses from the PRRI poll together, and we might form a hypothesis that much of the “wrong track” feeling that grips American voters stems from their sense of helplessness, their anger at a top-down system that doesn’t represent their interests, or grant them the independence to make their own decisions.
People on the Left and Right have very different ideas about who the masters of that system are, and those differences make meaningful political cooperation difficult. We should have the wisdom to agree that claiming America has made no major mistakes since the Fifties is as absurd as claiming it has done nothing right.