A new study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press explores the public’s attitude toward their elected representatives and the ideological viewpoints that divide our culture. The results reveal a surprising discordance between what the people want and what our representatives think we want.
If a neutral foreigner were to be deposited in America and asked to describe the aspirations of the American people based on his observations of politicians and the press, he might describe a populace consumed with conservative values, evangelical fervor, and personal greed. It’s an appraisal colored by the inordinately excessive volume of congressional Tea Partiers, moralistic spokespeople, and Republican anti-tax crusaders.
However, the true character of the American people has only recently been demonstrated via the actions of Wall Street Occupiers and their protests against the undemocratic usurpation of power by wealthy corporations and individuals, and their benefactors in government. We are a far more tolerant, charitable, and forward thinking people than we are portrayed to be.
The first, and perhaps most notable, revelation in the Pew survey is that, contrary to the conventional so-called wisdom, when Americans are asked for which term they have a more positive impression, “progressive” ranks highest (at 67%) and significantly higher than “conservative” (62%).
This reverence for progressivism will come as a surprise to many in the media who seem to have bought the persistent complaints of conservatives that Americans lean to the right. That has never been true. There has just been a concerted effort to demonize the liberal label, which has been successful to some degree. Glenn Beck tried to do the same thing to “progressive,” but obviously that didn’t work at all. He must be scarfing down Prozac by the handful right about now. And even with the decades-long bashing of liberals, the term still ties with “capitalism” at 50%. Meanwhile, socialism fares pretty well at 31% for a nation that once blacklisted anyone who expressed sympathy for workers or the poor – a nation to which today’s GOP would like to return.
In addition to the disconnect on ideology, the media has presented a pitifully shallow analysis of the public’s affinity (or lack thereof) for Congress. It has been widely reported that the approval rating for Congress is at historic lows (11%). However, that number has not been broken down to reflect the specific object of the public’s disaffection – until now.
The Pew survey reveals that the nation’s mind is firmly made up as to who is responsible for our national woes. When asked who is to blame for the “do-nothing” congress, respondents chose Republicans over Democrats by almost 2-to-1 (40% to 23%). Republicans were also seen as more extreme in their positions (55% to 33%), and less willing to work with the other side (25% to 51%). Meanwhile, Democrats were viewed as better able to manage government (41% to 35%) and more honest and ethical (45% to 28%).
This places media reports of low congressional approval ratings in context. What people hate about Washington are its GOP inhabitants. November 2012 can’t come soon enough for Democrats. And, as can be expected, Fox News leads the pack of truth-distorters by publishing an article on low congressional approval with an accompanying graphic that features Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, but no sign of the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, or his cadre of lieutenants and committee chairmen who presided over the least productive congress in 60 years.
A similar contextual perspective can be applied to reporting on the Occupy Wall Street movement. While right-wing propagandists have gone to great lengths to insult the protesters as unfocused, unclean, and un-American, the Pew poll paints a very different picture. A plurality of 44% support the movement. Even more (48%) agree with its goals. An overwhelming majority (77%) believe that there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations. That includes majorities of Democrats (91%), Independents (80%), and even Republicans (53%).
This information ought to be a part of every story broadcast or published about the nation’s moods and preferences. The low opinions expressed in media polls do not exist in a vacuum. Those numbers have no meaning without digging further to understand why they are what they are. If you were to put Gandhi in a room with a coven of neo-Nazis and poll the public as to their opinion of the people in that room, it would certainly yield a poor result. The inscrutable press would then report that America hates Gandhi. Of course, a more detailed survey would show that it was only the Nazis that brought the polling down.
That’s precisely the sort of deception that the media is engaging in with regard to Occupy Wall Street and Congress. And it’s why we have to be continually vigilant in monitoring the media and correcting it when necessary. In the meantime, we, as progressives, can be proud that the people are on our side, and we can keep reminding the world that it’s the other guys in the room who are stinking it up.