Riley Parr: Americans recognize something isn’t right

Keywords Forefront / Opinion

parr-riley-sig.jpgA recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reveals some startling results that many have observed anecdotally, but wondered the extent of more broadly. Check the poll out for yourself, but a few conclusions are worth mentioning.

Some 53% of respondents said the nation cannot overcome political divisions to address problems. This isn’t a profound revelation. We saw this when the Republicans led Congress and refused to work with President Obama when he occupied the White House, and the same behavior repeats today. Only this time, it’s the Democrats in charge of the House and Trump is president.

It seems to me that the better and more fundamental question, and one the poll did not explicitly ask, is whether the middle 80% of the country still holds the same basic ideological values.

After all, political divisions are one thing—those have always existed. But different philosophies are quite another matter. If the poll had explored that particular question, I don’t think anybody would be surprised if the results showed a stark contrast in beliefs about the role government should play in our daily lives.

The poll did get at the margins of my hypothesis, though. Only 32% think “commitment to democracy and majority rule” are fairly or extremely accurate fundamental ideals of the nation. That number was 53% in the latter years of the Clinton administration. This result is open to pretty broad interpretation from all sides, but one conclusion is that something is very wrong with the American experiment, and a lack of confidence in one of the most fundamental pillars of our system of government is the best way to express that concern.

More pointedly, only half said “commitment to free markets” accurately describes the United States, down from nearly 70% in the late 1990s. For conservatives, this provides further evidence of the ever-increasing acceptance and even celebration of collectivist policies, especially given the leftward lurch of the Democratic Party on virtually every major issue. For liberals, 50% is undoubtedly far too high a number. After all, it’s hard to see how the free enterprise system is compatible with the vision of America most candidates expressed in the first two Democratic debates.

Perhaps most concerning, 51% said America’s best years are in the past, compared with 44% who thought “that the future looks brighter.” This finding roughly confirms the tracking polls that ask if America is on the right track or the wrong track. For most of the last 10 years, nearly 60% think the U.S. falls into the latter category. Intriguingly, at least as far as the WSJ/NBC poll goes, the ratios remained basically unchanged across political stripes.

What an odd phenomenon. At a time when the economy is doing better than ever (even Bernie Sanders admitted that), more than half of Americans lack faith in the lasting power of the American ideal. By nearly every measurement, Americans are materially more comfortable than any human anywhere at any time.

This paradox extends to other areas of life: We’ve increasingly asked more of government, yet we have less faith that it can solve our problems. We have access to more information than at any point in human history, yet disinterest in exploring or even acknowledging the possible worthiness of alternative viewpoints is celebrated. Social media and technology afford instant connectivity to friends and colleagues, but loneliness and depression abound.

I’m not sure what that all means—except that Americans recognize something isn’t right. Whether we can—or even want to—discover the root causes and fix them remains to be seen.•

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Parr is a student at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis and is executive director of the Indiana Young Republicans and president of the IU McKinney Federalist Society. Send comments to [email protected]

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