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Poll Shows A New Definition Of Optimism In America


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan.

Opinion polls get a bad name. It is said that they are like shackles on the brains of politicians, that all they want to do once they know the numbers is to follow the numbers. But a man named Mark Penn, a pollster, sees this whole picture quite differently. He believes that the numbers are a way to see deep inside the American soul where they tell an actual story about who we are. Did you ever hear the term soccer mom? Mark Penn coined that when the number showed him a certain class of female suburban voter with certain concerns.

So now, Mark Penn has just presented some new poll results commissioned by The Atlantic and the Aspen Ideas Festival. And here's what he's seeing this time in the American soul: two-thirds of Americans say that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Sixty-nine percent believe the country's values have deteriorated since the 1970s. And yet he also found that 70 percent of Americans still believe they can achieve anything through hard work. It sounds like a contradiction, we're pessimistic but we're optimistic.

What about you? Has your sense of optimism changed? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Joining us now is Mark Penn. He is CEO of Penn Schoen Berland. He joins us from member station WLRN in Miami. Mark, welcome to the program.

MARK PENN: Thank you.

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.

DONVAN: I was going to ask you next, yeah. I mean, is it - is this about being young and about - to the extent that you're an historian of this sort of thing? Did the younger generations always poll - going back 50 years - do they always poll in a more open-minded way?

PENN: Going back 50 years, yes, if you go back. There was a book that I remember in college, "Rebellion in the University." Remember, kids typically were far more rebellious in the university towards the system, trying to really unseat the system if not create a revolution, than our last two generations have been. So the question you have is precisely because they're not so revolutionary but they have moved over.

They're socially more tolerant. They see a much broader world out there. I think those attitudes are likely to stay as they get married, or not get married, and have a family. I think they're much more likely to continue in that vein, rather than reverse, as I think we've seen with the older generation.

DONVAN: And, Mark, you said at the opening that Americans have a sort of - there's an undercurrent of pessimism that - a long line of that going back years. But at the same time, what seems to have surprised you and The Atlantic, as they wrote this up, is that despite all of the negative sentiment, that there is still this core individual, you know, despite everything by myself, I can change the world or at least I can change my world. Is that accurate? Is that what you're finding?

PENN: Well, that's what I found so interesting because there were two things that were quite interesting. One, is they said that working-class and middle-class Americans have had a really rough time and are worse off as a result of the capitalist system today. Then I went back and looked at those people who could be classified working-class and middle-class people, and they actually, when asked about themselves, said they had gotten a fairer shake from the capitalist system. So they have kind of a growing media, what I'd say, you know, talking points about society that are different from what people are experiencing.

And then the second finding, after all these pessimism about all the institutions, all this belief that money and wealth is really, you know, opening the doors to opportunity in this country today, you ask people at the end, and 70 percent say, of course, if I work hard, I can get anything I want in this country. So deep down, there is still a fundamental core of personal beliefs here that can be tapped upon by the right leadership. And I think Obama tapped on some of that in the - in his first election. And I think right now, no one is really tapping into that successfully.

DONVAN: Let's - we've asked our listeners to weigh in on this in a very unscientific sort of poll and qualitative to tell us their stories. So Hayes is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Hayes, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm not getting you, Hayes. Hang on a second. Hayes, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. My mistake.

HAYES: Hi. Thanks for talking my call.


HAYES: My question for your guest would be - you hear in polls and in the news about how this younger generation, which includes myself, the early 20-something coming out of college, are more and more pessimistic, be it 'cause of the job market or be it because they're coming out of college with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. My question for your guest would be, what he - how he sees that pessimism in our younger generation translating into our political structure going forward and also into the economic realm?


PENN: Well, as I say, I think young people are quite different socially. They also showed some differences economically. It's quite interesting that when you ask young people to rank their values, their - the value of equality outscored the value of free-enterprise system. And if you look for the older generations, the value of the free-enterprise system outscored the value of equality. So I do think that we have a much more team-oriented, society-oriented, equality-oriented younger generation.

And that man said that maybe they're going to be less into the free-enterprise or capitalist system. Now, that can cut both ways. That means that this generation could be less entrepreneurial, and I think that would be a concern for people to think entrepreneurship is incredibly important. On the other hand, for people who think that society has become more unequal, this stress on equality will also, I think, say, in the long term, you know, create some distinctly different political views.

I make a lot about an emerging new professional class that the younger people are - if you look at the more and more college educated, fewer and fewer are going into jobs that have anything to do with the manufacturing sector. More and more looking to be a new professional, and that is their ideal work space. And that is both different from being an entrepreneur, and it's different from working on a factory floor.

DONVAN: Hayes, if you're still with us. What about your own senses? It sounds like, you know, as you said, a member of the younger generation. What about your sense of optimism?

HAYES: Well, I mean, like - I was lucky, very lucky, coming out of college to get a very good job and - but when I look at my peers, who I went to college with and, you know, come out of school with $100,000 in student loan debt and maybe not working so much of a permanent job, I don't fear just for myself from the macroeconomic perspective but for my kids, you know, if students or young people my age aren't having meaningful careers, aren't building their 401(k)'s or pensions that are non-existent anymore, essentially, I don't know that translates into a secure economic future for the United States.

And I think a lot of times, that people's happiness, like we were talking about earlier, goes back to, are they financially secure? And the future as far as I see is very disturbing from a financial standpoint.

DONVAN: All right. Hayes, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts with us.

HAYES: Thank you.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Bernard - I'm sorry - I'm having a little bit of a difficulty with the line system.


DONVAN: Hi. Is this Bernard?

BERNARD: Yes. Thanks for taking my call.

DONVAN: Oh, thanks, Bernard, for getting on. Thanks.

BERNARD: Yes. And my comment is - actually, I'm an immigrant, and I came to this country about 10 years. My optimism hasn't changed one bit because, now, I'm an engineer, and I believe that with hard working, you can get anywhere that you can want to get. So I really would (unintelligible) that with hard work, you can get ahead. I believe that a lot.

DONVAN: Oh, thanks, Bernard, for making that point. And, Mark Penn, what about that? Is there - do you see a difference among immigrants from others in terms of their level of optimism and belief in the dream?

PENN: Well, I think that because 70 percent believe in that, that actually it's pretty much across the board, including immigrants. By the way, I thought it was quite interesting that Hayes reflected the poll quite perfectly because he said he himself had had a pretty good experience.

DONVAN: Yeah, yeah.

PENN: But he thought that everybody else wasn't. And so there's a certain amount going on here of spinning down our society. Now, obviously, unemployment is quite high and the economy continues to struggle. But there also continues to be very strong opportunity for those people with college degrees and even a shortage in jobs and people who have STEM science, STEM math - science education. So, again, it's quite interesting. I'm heartened to see - we do see immigrants strongly optimistic, but then I think across the board, there is this personal sense, boy, I can make it if I really work hard. But they don't think that the rest of society is rowing with them.

They don't think that other people are having that kind of experience, and they don't think the institutions are delivering for them. And regardless of whether they are or they aren't, this pessimism is really going to settle over America and create a very different perspective. I mean, if you look at those people graduating college, their parents haven't been optimistic for a while. They don't think they're going to do as well as their parents have done. Now, the older generation believes they've done better than their parents, expectations could be reset here quite negatively unless we see some lift in both society and the economy.

DONVAN: Let's go to Clark in Anchorage, Alaska. Hi, Clark. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.



CLARK: Thanks for taking my call.


CLARK: You know, we in here in Alaska had a kind of a mini problem with the economy that America is going through now. Back in 1985, we had a collapse of all of our banks, of all of our oil support, and every other house was for sale. Every business - every other business was shut down. Everybody who could leave Alaska did. And the economy was, you know, was exacerbated by that flee. And I think that what's happening in America now is, you know, we went through in '85. We've had - since 1985, we've had continuous growth, all except for a couple of years here recently, and now we're back on the growth again.

So we've had - we really haven't suffered with the rest of the country. But I can kind of point back to those times and they were terrible, and I almost lost my house and my business. And as an entrepreneur, once we hit bottom, it was all up from there. And I've always been a very optimistic person. But I really - I loved it when we hit bottom, you know? And I said, wow, now we can go ahead and we can start to build on that.

DONVAN: Do you think, Clark, that's where we are nationally? Do you think we're...

CLARK: I think we are. I think, you know, that the numbers appear that we have hit bottom in many, many sectors of the economy. And I think that as Americans, as entrepreneurs here in America, we can look at this economy now and say, I can walk and I can chew gum, therefore, I can make it in this economy. And I think there's a lot of us that can do that.

DONVAN: I'm curious about what age range you fit into.

CLARK: Well, I'm an old guy now.


CLARK: I'm in my 60s. And I think that, you know, back in '85, I was sort of in my prime. But I think that with an entrepreneurial spirit that Americans have, we can pull out of this. That's my message.

DONVAN: All right. Well - and that's Mark Penn's message as well. At least you're saying we better be careful to not let that spirit die, aren't you, Mark?

PENN: Absolutely. Look, what this says to me is that right now, the overall dialogue and atmosphere is really quite negative, and I saw this, too, in 1995. So underlying this is a sense of we can do it, it's a new technological world, education really does matter, there is a new economy out there, maybe we can figure out how to make it win for us. But we're waiting for somebody to come along and really tap into that and make us feel good again, like we're going to be successful as a society. Right now, more and more people are relying on themselves because they have to.

DONVAN: Mark Penn, thanks very much for your time today.

PENN: Thank you.

DONVAN: You can find a link to his Atlantic piece "Americans Are Losing Confidence in the Nation but Still Believe in Themselves" at our website. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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