Two-thirds of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to a survey conducted by Penn Schoen Berland. On NPR News Talk of the Nation, Mark Penn explains that though Americans are losing confidence in the nation, they have retained a sense of personal optimism.
DONVAN: So what we’re seeing here, is it kind of a redesign of the American dream or at least the way that people are describing it to themselves?
PENN: Well, I think that Americans, you have to bear in mind, are always a little pessimistic. I mean, it’s really quite common for Americans to rag on current conditions at the same time that half of them also think in an optimistic way because people often think the external world has significant problems that can’t be surmounted, but they usually see their internal world as a world of promise of hope. And they still mostly see that in America, though we’ll have to say we’ve gone through perhaps the longest period of pessimism, in what I always joke as recorded polling history in the last decade.
DONVAN: And what is it that people are losing faith in? Is it institutions?
PENN: Well, they are losing a lot of faith in their politicians. Wall Street came out miserably in this survey. I think less than 20 percent believe the people on Wall Street share common American values, which shows what a hill they have to climb. I think there’s some dispirit with the overall capitalist system. They think the economy is going in the wrong direction. What haven’t people lost faith in, in terms of outside institutions? Virtually every one.
DONVAN: And, you know, I know we always have a tendency to look in the rearview mirror only about 10 yards down the road, so it’s almost hard to believe that there was a time when people had more confidence in institutions. But is there a recent – is it recent that we – that a majority of Americans had a kind of faith in the institutions that represent them, by Wall Street and by their churches and by the electoral process? Was there…
PENN: I think the second Clinton administration was probably as close to the last heyday as we really had. I think probably the period from probably Clinton’s second election through – until 9/11 occurred was probably a very optimistic period. People thought that America was on top again, preparing for the 21st century. Two-thirds of the public thought things were going in the right direction. We really haven’t seen that in a long time.
DONVAN: Interesting trends you find in generational differences. Let’s talk about a couple of those. One is the open-mindedness of the younger generation. On what topics in particular are younger Americans coming out as more open minded?
PENN: Well, I think younger Americans here are expressing themselves as considerably more socially liberal than the older generation, and it’s interesting because the older generation now is the generation that voted for Kennedy. So whether it’s living together without marriage, whether it’s homosexuality, all of these various topics that have been difficult topics of discussion the older generation still finds morally unacceptable, the younger generation finds quite acceptable. And so there is a big split on social values between the two. Now, you don’t really know what happens to the younger generation when they get older.