For the past seven weeks, WNYC’s daily call-in program, The Brian Lehrer Show, has partnered with The Harris Poll on a series called “The Eights“, which seeks to understand how America arrived at its current highly polarized state by dissecting the country’s culture wars in years ending in 8: 1948, 1958, 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998, 2008. In 2018, we continue the trail with a new Harris Poll survey for WNYC that reveals what elements unite and divide Americans, and why.
The findings of the new survey were disclosed at a live taping of the show with The Harris Poll’s executive editor, Michael D’Antonio, and Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University. According to the poll, current factors that largely unite Americans include: making healthcare more affordable, being open to alternative viewpoints, being involved in local community, having more things for sale that are made in America, less discrimination based on people’s beliefs or identities, women having more power in society and more power and respect for African Americans (70% of whites said they would feel more included if African Americans had more power).
However, when Americans were asked if social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo would have a positive or negative impact on society, 70% of African Americans said the movements were having a positive impact, but only 47% of whites agreed. Furthermore, half of white Americans (50%) said the movements were doing more harm than good.
D’Antonio explained that some views indicate aspirational notions as people are often hesitant about disclosing their biases to pollsters; similar sentiments about social justice campaigns were echoed during the civil rights movements of the 60s. In theory, Americans seem to like these aspirational values and desire conversations, but in practice (as we see with The Harris Poll’s GLAAD study on LGBTQ acceptance in America) there is a disconnect; they don’t follow up on those things they claim they value.
Additionally, almost every year since 1966, The Harris Poll has conducted the alienation index to determine how alienated Americans feel from the country’s leadership. By asking Americans, among other things, if they feel people running the country don’t care about them and the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer, we try to discern people’s sense of agency and their wellbeing to estimate how alienated they feel. The country’s alienation index was 29 when it started in 1966 and it has risen steadily ever since. It reached a record-high of 70 in 2014 and 2016, during the Obama years and dropped by three points in the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. As Antonio pointed out, people sense of alienation are largely influenced by who is in power.
Greer added that the the U.S is still a country that has four pillars: capitalism, anti-black racism, white supremacy and patriarchy. “For white Americans equity equals discrimination,” she said.
The history of post-World War II America is a history of a cycle of social progress and backlash. Former president Barack Obama put it aptly in his 2016 commencement address at Rutgers University:
“…America’s progress has never been smooth or steady. Progress doesn’t travel in a straight line. It zigs and zags in fits and starts. Progress in America has been hard and contentious, and sometimes bloody. It remains uneven and at times, for every two steps forward, it feels like we take one step back.”
Tune in to The Brian Lehrer Show airing today from 10am-noon on WNYC 93.9 FM, AM 820 and wnyc.org to hear the last episode of “The Eights” which will explore what elements divide the country and why Americans are stuck in their political tribes.