Friday, November 17 , 2017, 10:27 pm | Fair 50º


Mark Shields: Troubling New Poll Shows American Optimism on Life Support

A long time ago, maybe in the first Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, my precinct committeewoman taught me the unchanging rules of how to respond to public opinion polls. If the polls show your candidate trailing badly, then simply attack polls and anyone who blindly follows them: “I will always be grateful, as an American, that at Valley Forge, Gen. George Washington did not take any polls. If he had, you and I would still be bowing and curtseying before everyone in the British royal family.”

But if the polls instead show your side with a big lead, just acknowledge, with humility, the results: “A poll, of course, is nothing more than a snapshot in time. These numbers, while encouraging, will just make us work harder to earn the support of the hardworking Americans we seek to serve.” You know the drill.

But once in awhile, a poll appears for which the rehearsed rebuttals do not work and to which one must pay attention. That brings us directly to the August NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. True, we have seen similar numbers before: Americans give failing grades to Congress, both political parties (yes, Republicans worse than Democrats), President Barack Obama and Wall Street. Not much new there.

But the real casualty in this respected survey conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Bill McInturff is not any politician or profession; it is that American optimism is now on life support.

Think about it. We are Americans who grew up believing there would be a happy ending, that the underdog — for whom Americans almost invariably root — could topple the bigger, stronger opponent. If you remove optimism from the American DNA, then the United States becomes little more than a continental Belgium. No disrespect intended to anyone from Brussels, but there are not people at this moment working, saving, dreaming, scheming and praying on how to get to Belgium.

The poll asked people which of the following statements comes closer to their view: “The United States is a country where anyone, regardless of their background, can work hard, succeed and be comfortable financially” or “The widening gap between the incomes of the wealthy and everyone else is undermining the idea that every American has the opportunity to move up to a better standard of living.” A majority (54 percent) — including 61 percent of American women — chose the “widening gap undermining opportunity” answer, and just 44 percent of all voters and 34 percent of independents picked the “anyone can succeed” option.

“Do you feel confident that life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us?” More than three out of four of us — 76 percent — predict a less bright future for our children. More than seven out of 10 say the recession had an impact on them either “a lot” or “some.” And for 40 percent — which represents approximately 126 million Americans — someone in their household lost a job in the last five years. The Great Recession may be over, according to economists’ graphs, but for too many of our neighbors, it remains an open wound.

When we are optimistic, we are more generous in our public policy. If the economic pie is going to get bigger, then we welcome more to the table to share. This was the case in the 1960s, when Americans, during a decade when the United States’ gross domestic product doubled, had the courage and the confidence to correct the nation’s original sin of racial segregation. During the 21st century, when Americans’ median household income has continued to decline, we have failed on immigration.

Without optimism and the confidence and courage that it inspires, the United States would be, sadly, a much different and less special place.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >