Book Review : Pollster's View of U.S.--Gloom, Despair

Inside America: Who We Are, What We Think, Where We're Headed by Louis Harris (Vintage Books/Random House: $7.95; 288 pp.)

The pollster is the oracle of American politics, commerce and popular culture: A presidential candidate or a cereal manufacturer or a motion picture producer will rely on public opinion polls to discover what the American people want to hear, to buy, to believe.

So when veteran pollster Louis Harris reveals the arcane knowledge of his craft in "Inside America," we are privy to the extensive insights that shape our lives and our destinies.

But what I found truly surprising about Harris' book is its sheer gloom and despair--"Inside America" is a low-key jeremiad that portrays Americans in the '80s as "stress-ridden, alienated and frenetic," self-serving and hyper-materialistic, well-meaning but alarmingly hypocritical.

Harris offers 65 mini-chapters that set forth the results of recent public opinion polling on everything from the location of litter boxes (39% are found in basements, 1% in living rooms) to gun ownership ("44% of the 87 million households in the land possess a gun") to attitudes toward AIDS (84% of the public is at least "moderately confident" that a cure will be discovered in the next few years).

At first, I found myself questioning whether these statistical tidbits tell us anything profound or enduring about America; isn't the national psyche more accurately revealed in arts and letters, folklore and folkways? But the whole of Harris' work is far greater than the sum of its parts--"Inside America" is a harrowing portrait of a nation and a people at war with themselves.

Morally Ambivalent

We learn, for instance, that Americans are God-fearing but morally ambivalent. Harris reports that "95% of the American people say they believe in God," yet "a clear-cut 58% of these same people are not at all regular church or synagogue attenders."

By 56% to 40%, "most Americans feel that to perform an abortion is the equivalent of murder," but 67% to 30% "feel that as long as a woman and her doctor agree, abortion should be permitted."

When asked what most Americans would do if offered an opportunity to engage in illegal insider trading in the stock market, "a big 82% to 14% said most people would buy the stock--even though they knew it was illegal to do so."

Cheating on Taxes

And more than half of all yuppies (whom Harris defines rather simplistically as anyone between 18 and 39 years of age with at least some college education) "admitted that they did their own income taxes so that they could cheat."

Harris points out the contrast between what Americans say and what they do. For instance, "A substantial 77% of Americans claim they exercise regularly, but no more than 30% . . . really take serious exercise," he writes. "Ironically, when asked what they should be eating, a majority of people are able to come up with a goodly and healthy mix of chicken and fish, fresh vegetables and fruits. . . . But much of this appears to be lip service. When they get inside a supermarket or especially when they go out to eat, the American people revert to what can only be viewed as a nutritionally disastrous diet."

And the pursuit of money, not happiness, is the engine of the American dream: "Since 1973 the number of hours worked by Americans has increased by 20%, while the amount of leisure time available to the average person has dropped by 32%," Harris reports. "Prevailing sentiment is widely recognized by eight in 10 people and can be summed up thus: to make a lot of money is not only desirable, it is the in thing to do."

And he concludes: "The era has produced the kind of leadership that encourages attitudes such as these, and these attitudes in turn spawn new leadership that makes the notion of making it big at any cost more deeply ingrained. Put bluntly, in these Reagan years especially, society has put a premium on making it big."

Sense of Alienation

Despite the moral ascendancy of "making it big"--or perhaps because of it--Harris and his fellow pollsters have detected a profound sense of alienation, powerlessness and despair in the American people.

A superficial majority of 63% claims that "their life is highly satisfying," but the hard reality is that "a substantial 60% of the adult population feels alienated from the power structure . . . 81% of the public feel that 'the rich get richer and the poor get poorer' . . . 60% say their feelings are summed up in the charge that 'what I think doesn't count much anymore' and 55% of the nation are convinced that 'the people running the country don't really care what happens to me.' "

And public confidence in virtually every major institution in America--organized religion, schools, courts, government, doctors, big business, the White House, the military, the press, and so on--has declined sharply.

It's no surprise, then, that Harris reports America to be badly stressed out, physically and emotionally. "Fully 73% of the American people (76 million) say they have trouble sleeping," he reports. A 55% majority reports "knowing someone who 'drinks too much' . . . and 4 in 10 teen-agers use marijuana. . . . Anyone might justifiably be frightened and even alarmed at the penetration of illicit drugs into the mainstream of American society."

High Stress Levels

The number of Americans who proclaim themselves to be pleased with friendships, health, leisure activities and places of residence has declined. And "fully 90% of all adult Americans, a substantial 158 million people, report experiencing high stress, with as many as six in every 10 reporting 'great stress' at least once or twice every week."

Not all of the news in "Inside America" is quite so grim. "Since 1981 the number of marriages has gone up 3% nationwide, while the number of divorces has declined 5%--the first time this has happened in modern times," writes Harris. Love is the best reason for getting married, according to an 83% majority, and "being in love' is cited by 90% "as the magic potion that holds marriages together."

And I was surprised and heartened at the persistence of social conscience in the otherwise cynical and materialistic America that Harris describes: A substantial majority believes that too little effort has been directed toward the problems of children, the elderly and the poor; a 2-to-1 majority believes that "it is immoral for the U.S. to support a government such as South Africa" and more than 80% of the American people favor an end to nuclear testing, a reduction in nuclear armaments and the outlawing of weapons in space.

Similar majorities declare themselves to be alarmed over the threat of pollution, nuclear power and hazardous wastes. Despite nearly eight years of rhetoric from Ronald Reagan, the number of Americans who believe that "the federal government should use its power more vigorously to promote the well being of all segments of the people" has jumped from 30% to 41%.

I cannot vouch for the scientific validity of these statistics, although Harris is quick to do so--he surveyed "the vast majority of published works in the field of public opinion" and sought out "rich quality data," not only his own but that of Gallup, Roper and other polling organizations.

What's Adequate Polling?

Still, Harris confesses to "a sense of letdown and even dismay at some of the work in the field that is passed off as adequate polling. Often, research is based on samples far too small to be reliable. Often the questionnaire design is superficial, lacking in structure and depth; sometimes, it seems like a quick-and-dirty effort to get a headline."

Indeed. It's bad enough that public opinion polling has ruined the former pleasures of watching the returns on election night, and to no palpable benefit. But the prospect of sloppy polling is especially unsettling when we reflect on how much influence the pollsters wield over government, industry and the media.

In fact, a close reading of the footnotes in "Inside America" reveals that much of the work performed by the pollsters is commissioned by various advertising agencies, political entities and government bureaus, manufacturers of cigarettes and soap and aspirin and others who traffic in the sentiments and enthusiasms of the American people.

As I read "Inside America," I was ready to predict that the book would find its way to the desks of the decision-makers from the President on down--but I realize now that they already know what Harris is now revealing to the rest of us. We should thank him for the favor.

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