Reading the American Mind

Reading Mixed Signals: Ambivalence in American Public Opinion about Government
By Albert H. Cantril and Susan Davis Cantril. Woodrow Wilson Center Press (distributed by the Johns Hopkins University Press), 253 pages.

“Retro-Politics: The Political Typology, Version 3.0”
Report by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, 163 pages.

How many times in the coming political year will an aspiring politician stand up and declare, “The American people believe . . . ”? And how many times will newspapers tell us that “polls show the public supports” such and such? It’s a cherished national political fantasy: you, me, and the American people-all of one mind.

But who are these American people? What do “we” really know? What do we believe? An industry of poll-takers is at work around the clock, churning out answers. Most of them are only too happy to spoon-feed their results to an addicted news media, knowing full well the story will be grossly oversimplified when reduced to a headline. Meanwhile, a smaller group of serious and thoughtful researchers is probing the minds of the citizenry. Some of them are providing fascinating ways of understanding who we are and what we believe. The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press has distinguished itself in recent years as one of the nation’s most illuminating polling centers. In November the Pew Center released a detailed report that divides the public into 10 groups, based on political attitudes and social and religious beliefs. Another major contribution, which puts the public in a rather different light, is offered by social scientists Albert H. Cantril and Susan Davis Cantril in their book Reading Mixed Signals. Both studies have a lot to tell us about current American politics, and both suggest that public opinion has shifted in important ways since the 1980s Reagan era, and even since 1994, the Gingrich moment.

The Cantrils’ analysis upends much of what conventional polling presumes to tell us. So before turning everything upside-down, let’s start with a conventional poll, albeit an unusually careful one. The Pew Center interviewed almost 5,000 people in three separate polls during the summer and fall of 1999 (margins of error are in the 2-percent range). “The mood of the American electorate has changed markedly since the mid-1990s,” according to the Pew Center’s report “Retro-Politics.” Political moderation and centrism carry the day now, and anti-government sentiment has diminished. Economic optimism has risen, as greater numbers of people feel a sense of financial security.

Within the Pew Center’s 5,000- person sample, though, are the complicated, fractious, diverse multitudes that make up the American public. Not everyone is satisfied: There are the Partisan Poor, who tend to be skeptical of big business and convinced government should do more to help the less fortunate. There are the Populist Republicans, who are worried about homosexuals and dangerous books. There are the Disaffecteds, who are estranged from the two major parties and distrustful of government and business. And, as always, there is a group of Bystanders, who are estimated to be about 11 percent of the general population, and who show no interest in politics and almost never vote.

In all, the Pew Center’s “political typology” finds three groups within the Republican camp, four in the Democratic tradition, two that are independent, and one (the Bystanders) that is unengaged. This is the third version of the typology-the first was produced in 1987, the second in 1994. A new finding this time around is an emerging group of Moderate Republicans, who have joined Populist Republicans and Staunch Conservatives. The moderates are more positive about government, softer on Bill Clinton, and more pro- environment, while maintaining conservative social views.

Among those who lean toward the Democratic Party, the Pew Center finds the Partisan Poor, Liberal Democrats (critical of big business and supportive of government activism), Socially Conservative Democrats (disenchanted with government and business, less tolerant on social issues), and New Democrats (favorable toward government and business and satisfied with the state of the nation).

In addition to the Disaffecteds, the Pew Center finds a group of New Prosperity Independents, who are affluent, tolerant, pro-business, and strongly in favor of a third political party. Each of these nine groups (leaving out the Bystanders) is estimated to make up about 10 to 12 percent of registered voters, except for the Socially Conservative Democrats, who are estimated at 14 percent.

For those who want the Reagan and Gingrich movements to fade into history and who prefer reading polls to tea leaves, there is much in “Retro-Politics” that can be seen as encouraging. Good news for the Democratic Party: Support for the GOP is slipping. Republican Party affiliation in 1998 and 1999 stood at only 27 percent, after having climbed to 32 percent in 1995. (These findings are based on several polls per year, not just the one under discussion here. The Pew Center reaches about 10,000 people a year on party-affiliation questions.) Democratic Party identification has held steady at 34 percent, and 39 percent now call themselves independent. The Democratic advantage could translate into congressional gains in next year’s elections, the Pew Center poll suggests. On the other hand, there is good news for Republicans when it comes to their leading candidate for the White House, George W. Bush.

Republicans are showing more unity in their early presidential preferences, with more than 80 percent in each of the three Republican-leaning groups saying there is a chance they will support Bush, while majorities in the two independent groups and in two of the Democratic-leaning groups (New Democrats and Social Conservatives) say they would consider voting for him. Therein lies the potential for a winning coalition.

All of that is speculation, which is what sometimes gets pollsters in trouble. “If the election were held today . . .” they are fond of saying. But of course the election will not be held today. People do change their minds, especially as they get to know candidates. The real value of a detailed and careful survey of the electorate is that it shows how difficult it is to simplify American politics into right versus left, or even right, left, and center. Both parties have strong centrist tendencies, while independents in the center are drawn left and right -- to political characters as disparate as Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, Bill Clinton, and, presumably, George W. Bush.

The political currents of centrism and populism that swirl in the 1990s, the Pew Center report finds, come “at the expense of ideological consistency.” Although many Americans and much of the pundit class continue to use the liberal and conservative labels, “only two segments of the electorate express coherent ideological points of view-Staunch Conservatives [and] Liberal Democrats,” according to the report.

Which brings us to the key question: Do all those thousands of people answering questions from a polling firm on the other end of the telephone line really know what they are talking about? Do they know where they stand on political issues? Suppose it’s true that, as the Pew Center tells us, 76 percent of the public says that the strength of the country today is based on the success of American business, while 74 percent says there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few companies. Or, as many polls have found in the past, that people don’t trust the government to run a health care system, while a strong majority approves of keeping or even expanding Medicare and Medicaid.

This is the subject of Reading Mixed Signals. What are we to make of the ample evidence that the public is capable of believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast? The authors concern themselves with one specific “paradox” in public opinion: In general terms, Americans often express a negative view of government; yet when asked about specific government activities, the same people will usually express strong support for those activities. Do the people contradict themselves? They do.

The Cantrils argue that sending mixed signals doesn’t necessarily mean the public is mixed up or that its contradictions are due to a lack of information, or a sign of weak opinions. What the people have is a case of deep and persistent ambivalence. This alerts us, the Cantrils note, “to the difficulties of reporting what ‘the public’ thinks. To say that ‘the public’ is pro or con on an issue may slight, if not miss entirely, the fact that sometimes people are both.”

All reputable pollsters are aware of public ambivalence. Most have a tendency to brush it aside, as an inconvenient wrinkle that interferes with their findings. Within the public opinion community, the problem has been discussed for years, but mostly in different terms and by different methods than those the Cantrils use. Researchers have explored, for example, the presence of “pseudo-opinions” or “nonattitudes” among the populace. In polling two decades ago for Time magazine, Daniel Yankelovich introduced his own “mushiness index” to explore the lack of firmness, or “volatility,” of people’s opinions.

Reading Mixed Signals takes the study of ambivalence further. The Cantrils pick up on a neglected approach pioneered by Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril, who conducted surveys in 1964 designed to explore contradictory opinions about government. What that study found was that people could be placed on an “ideological spectrum,” based on their general views, and also on an “operational spectrum,” based on their specific opinions about actual government programs. Thus, 50 percent of their respondents could be described as “conservative” in ideological terms, but 65 percent tended to be “liberal” on government programs.

One need only think back a few years to come up with a current illustration of the same phenomenon at work. When Newt Gingrich and congressional Republicans seemed to be taking on big government, they found themselves with a sudden congressional majority after the 1994 elections. When they pushed to shut down the federal government over budget disagreements with the president, the public was repelled. “Two wires had crossed in the circuitry of public opinion,” the Cantrils write.

The Cantrils set out in the summer of 1997, after the Gingrich furor had subsided and before the Clinton impeachment saga began, to probe public opinion about government. They conducted 2,002 interviews in a national telephone survey (about 70 percent of the randomly selected people agreed to participate and the survey has a margin for error of plus or minus 2.2 percent). Their approach was to ask questions about the scope and power of government generally and then to ask about 10 specific government activities (“enforcing standards for clean air,” “health care for low-income families,” and “ensuring safe working conditions,” for example). Based on the general responses, people were found to be “mostly supportive” of government, “mostly critical,” or “neither critical nor supportive.” The findings here might seem to suggest a pro-government majority --51 percent were mostly supportive, 38 percent mostly critical, and 11 percent neither.

From there, the Cantrils judged people’s ambivalence based on how many of the 10 government activities that respondents believe should have current-level or increased funding. Fully 67 percent thought nine or 10 of the programs should continue to be funded at their present level or higher. Among those who were “mostly critical” of government, almost a third favored 10 out of 10 programs--a clear sign of ambivalence. Conversely, among those who were “mostly supportive,” there were some ambivalent respondents who favored only seven programs or fewer.

This leads to a “political typology” quite different from the one the Pew Center produced. The Cantrils divide the public into four groups: Steady Critics and Ambivalent Critics plus Steady Supporters and Ambivalent Supporters. (A fifth group, the 11 percent who were neither/nor about government, generally were absolved from further questioning and let off the line to return to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) The largest bloc of the public, then, by this reckoning is the group of Steady Supporters, at 39 percent. Steady Critics amounted to only 18 percent. And in the mushy, ambivalent middle were 32 percent (12 percent Ambivalent Supporters and 20 percent Ambivalent Critics).

So it would appear that the Reagan revolution--in which government is the problem, not the solution--has finally fizzled. The Cantrils note that support for government is not neatly aligned with a conservative-versus-liberal demarcation. In their survey, 39 percent identify themselves as either “very conservative” or “moderately conservative,” while only 17 percent are “very liberal” or “moderately liberal” (with 39 percent choosing “middle of the road”). Yet “conservative” turns out not to be a synonym for “anti-government.” And while liberals are fairly supportive of government, the Cantrils found 23 percent of liberals to be either steadily or ambivalently critical of government. “In public opinion terms, the debate between ‘conservatism’ and ‘liberalism’ is not even about a common set of questions,” they write.

The Cantrils go on to explore the reasons for ambivalence toward government, finding it to be not much connected to education level, income, or even direct experience with government programs. They find it most difficult to explain the opinions of government critics, the group more prone to ambivalence. Two out of several factors that lead to ambivalence among critics, they suggest, have to do with government’s attention to the poor and government’s role in attending to the national community. In each case, the critics can’t quite bring themselves to favor government renouncing the poor or ignoring our interdependence. It’s as if the idea that government can be a positive force has made sneaky inroads among those inclined to think otherwise.

Along the way, an interesting portrait of government’s Steady Critics emerges. For the most part, this 18-percent minority appears to be who you might expect: more males than females, more whites than blacks, and more likely to be 60 or older. One important finding “is how different Steady Critics are from others in the frequency with which they vote and participate in other ways. Their influence in the electorate and the political process as a whole is clearly greater than their actual numbers in the country,” the authors write.

As one wades deeper into the Cantrils’ analysis, one is forced to question many assumptions about who the American people are and what they are thinking--and especially why they think what they do. It might be said that the Cantrils are from the Rubik’s Cube School of Analysis--just when you begin to think the pieces are falling into place, they give things a little twist and start looking at them from a different angle and all the variables get mixed up again.

But the world of polling is discredited by too much simplistic “analysis,” so a sophisticated, nuanced approach is not at all a bad thing. Some readers may well be left with an ambivalence about ambivalence. On the one hand, the mixed opinions of government were described in the 1964 Free-Cantril poll--it may be a natural and permanent part of political life. And, the authors suggest, “ambivalence about government is perfectly compatible with being an informed, involved citizen.” On the other hand, they acknowledge that such ambivalence “is clearly linked to reduced levels of voting.”

Indeed, a compelling argument was made several years ago by Daniel Yankelovich in his book Coming to Public Judgment that a healthy democracy should find ways for people to “work through” their conflicting opinions, so as to turn ill-considered opinion into what he calls “judgment.” It’s puzzling that in the Cantrils’ extensive bibliography there is no mention of Yankelovich’s important work on this question.

The authors wrap up with a few points that are especially germane in an election year. Just under one-third of Americans are ambivalent in their thinking about government, they conclude. But “those who are sending mixed signals about government are not a monolithic ‘center’ of American politics that can be appealed to in some generic way.” The truly competitive political battle ground is among the Ambivalent Critics. These are the people who have been pulled one way by the Newt Gingrich militance and another way by the Clintonian status quo. It is not a stretch to imagine a successful candidate coming along who brands himself a “conservative,” but who is willing to promote useful government activity, even on behalf of the poor. Someone perhaps who agrees with Bill Clinton that “the era of big government is over” and yet gives a clear signal that he intends not to make actual cuts in government services. Throw in a little “compassion” and “restoring dignity to the Oval Office,” and you might have a winner. At least if the election were held today.

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