WNYC’s The Eights: Annual Harris Poll Alienation Index Captures Americans’ Distrust of Power in 1968

Today’s episode of “The Eights,” the new series launched by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show in partnership with The Harris Poll, examined The Harris Poll’s historic Alienation Index—an annual measure of how estranged Americans feel, particularly from people in power—in the context of 1968.

Three years after establishing The Harris Poll in 1963, Lou Harris launched the Alienation Index. When the survey was first conducted in 1966, Americans felt 29% alienated, but by 1968 that number rose to 36%. In retrospect, it is no surprise given the tumultuous sociopolitical climate of that era. While in 1966 the country reveled in its post-World War II status as the world’s savior from fascism and enjoyed a relatively stable economy, by 1968 the glow of victory began to fade. America began to unravel. A values counterculture emerged, and Americans became distrustful of government, religious institutions, even elders. A majority of Americans questioned capitalism, white privilege and the Vietnam War.

The alienation was also especially felt by African-Americans who felt significantly more detached, rising from 34% in 1966 to 56% in 1968, nearly double the sentiments of white Americans. Yet, 52% of white Americans felt in 1968 that racial progress had increased.

Since 1966, the Alienation Index has continued to climb, and since 1972 it has never dipped below 50, except briefly in 2001 when America was momentarily united after the September 11 attacks; in recent years it has peaked around 70%. The Index and “The Eights” are sort of a forensic analysis of America’s current polarized climate with empirical social intelligence data on how past events and attitudes shaped America’s present sociopolitical landscape. At the moment, The Harris Poll is working on a new poll with The Brian Lehrer Show on polarization and what might possibly bridge cultural divides.

The Eights” series debuted on The Brian Lehrer Show on May 7, offering a brief decade-by-decade history of America’s culture wars.

To listen to “The Eights,” tune in to The Brian Lehrer Show airing weekdays from 10am-noon on WNYC 93.9 FM, AM 820 and wnyc.org.