A recent McClatchy-Marist poll, written up in Talking Points Memo, that says that 64% of Americans believe that “the country is on the wrong track.” The article however, does not delve into exactly *why* the 64% surveyed believe America is on the road to ruin or what “wrong track” we’re on. The poll results give a little bit of speculative clarity, but not enough to take anything really that meaningful about the wants and needs of Americans – just an overall sense that things aren’t going so well and we’re still confused as to what to do about it.
Considering the economy still swims in the toilet, we’re still embroiled in two major wars and several small conflicts throughout the globe and the political bluster permeating the airwaves, it’s not too hard to believe most Americans believe we’re driving on the wrong side of the road. The questioning in the McClatchy-Marist poll reflects some of that sentiment. Aside from the “wrong track” question, those surveyed were asked what Congress’s top priority should be, under what circumstances they would support a government shutdown, and if they support or oppose cutting military spending, Medicare and Medicaid, and raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
From the responses to the questions, what’s more interesting than the benign 64% of people sharing a sentiment we already knew about, are respondents feelings on each of those other, more specific questions:
The majority surveyed (57%) feel that reducing the deficit should be the top priority for Congress. Maintaining services and benefits is the next highest category, at 27%.
64% surveyed believe in increasing income tax on income over $250,000 to deal with the federal budget deficit.
80% surveyed oppose cutting Medicare and Medicaid to deal with the federal budget.
54% oppose reducing military spending.
69% oppose raising the federal debt ceiling.
These results reflect a deep dilemma Americans face when it comes to understanding the price we have to pay if the majority believe reducing the federal deficit should be highest on the agenda. Defense spending, Medicare and Social Security (which the majority of Americans do not want to cut spending on) make up the most significant portions of the budget. Instead, thanks to media hype and political hyperbole, we’re under the mistaken belief that cutting NPR funding will save 5% of the federal budget or teachers and other public servants live lavish lifestyles on bloated salaries with our tax dollars.
Though Americans claim to be fervent individualists, we enjoy the comfort of knowing that if we support or disagree on an issue, others exist who feel as we do. Americans especially love polls, because they’re easy to distill and spin into the right talking points to prove that “most of us” are behind whatever agenda a pundit or politician is selling. Even “scientific” polls though, really don’t have the ability to delve deeply into a respondent’s psyche to figure out exactly why a respondent feels the way they do. Still, because we feel comfortable in a crowd, we let the peer pressure of newly released polls affect our feelings on political ideologies and voting patterns.
Unfortunately for our democracy, this type of thing will only get worse. The 2010 Citizens United decision gave corporations and candidates a blank check to spend on advertising. Not surprisingly, last election saw record spending. Unlimited spending accounts, the ability to endlessly spin opinion polls into “facts,” and a public easily cowed and distracted from critical thinking and analysis are more than just dangers, they’re becoming a painful reality.