To anyone listening to right wing talk radio these days, President Obama has single handedly destroyed the free enterprise system, the American way of life and the nation itself. Last week's dismal job report accelerated talk radio's ranting about our imminent demise. While the mainstream media's news reports were more tempered in tone, even they seemed to indicate that the bottom had fallen out of America's self-confidence and general sense of well being. These news stories seem to contrast with the reality I see in the parks, subways and streets of my hometown. It's true that New Yorkers constantly complain (I think it's something in our water), and they often complain about government. But I don't think most Americans connect government to their own economic success or failure. While we should be deeply concerned about the inability of our economy to generate sufficient employment, and most Americans are concerned about the economy, most people do not see a crisis. How do Americans in 2012 feel about their quality of life?
To try to get a handle on the question of America's sense of well being, I turned to one of the most reliable sources of opinion data, the Gallup Poll. For the last several years, Gallup and the health care management company Healthways have conducted daily polling on a variety of indicators of American well being. I find two of their summary social indicators of particular relevance here. One is a composite index in which Americans report if they are "thriving," "struggling," or "suffering." During the depths of the 2008 economic crash, the percentage of those struggling peaked at 54 percent, the number thriving dropped to 41 percent and those suffering rose to 6 percent. In the survey taken on June 1, 2012, the percentage thriving was 55 percent, those struggling totaled 41 percent and 4 percent indicated that they were suffering.
The second indicator I find relevant is based on a question Gallup that asks: " Are you satisfied with the city or area where you live?" Nearly every American seems to like their hometown. Currently 85.7 percent are satisfied with their community. During the depths of the Great Recession this declined slightly to 83.9 percent, a difference within the statistical margin of error. In addition, the number of Americans thinking their hometown is getting better is the highest it's been since before the financial meltdown. According to Gallup:
The 58.7 percent of Americans who said their city or area where they live is "getting better" in April is the highest since the 59.0 percent measured in January 2008, and has surpassed pre-financial crisis levels.
This is the day-to-day experience that I sense on the street, and through routine social and professional interaction. The majority of Americans are happy with the world they experience at home and in their neighborhood. The America they experience through the lens of the media is another story entirely. As Gallup reports:
Americans were much more satisfied with their local situation than they were with the national situation. In a May 3-6 Gallup poll, 24 percent of Americans were satisfied with the way things are going in the country, compared with the current 85.7 percent who say they are satisfied with their city or area. This reflects Americans' tendency to be more positive about local situations than about national conditions.
I think that in some sense the "local community" is the America you live in and directly experience and "the nation" is a sort of abstraction you hear about from others. Another piece of data from the Gallup-Healthways study tends to confirm the importance of direct experience. The survey provides a daily well-being index that combines a number of indicators including individual perceptions of physical and emotional health. The factor that is consistently rated lowest is a person's work environment, which Gallup measures by asking questions about job satisfaction and treatment by management.
According to these data, Americans are more positive about their community and their physical and psychological health than they are about work and about the nation as a whole. It makes sense that of the two arenas most people experience directly -- work and home -- most are more satisfied with home than work. They also report liking both home and work more than they like the federal government. This picture is probably too complex for the news media to report accurately. The Gallup-Healthways Index helps explain the gap between the media's reporting about the horrible state of our union, and the sense of overall satisfaction most Americans experience firsthand.
The media's reflexive negativity stems from the fact that the media is a business that lives and dies on the size of its audience. The size of a media outlet's audience determines how much money they make in advertising. People are more interested in conflict and bad news than in seeing a balanced picture of the world around them. The old saying in the days of newsprint was "if it bleeds it leads." Watch the local 11 PM news on TV and it takes about ten minutes until you see anything other than murder and mayhem. The national news tends to focus on everything going wrong in the nation's capital, and then it turns to the global images of violence and disaster.
Is it any wonder that Americans perceive the world they experience first hand in more positive terms than the world they learn about through the media? While there is an unacceptably high level of poverty in America, for the majority this country is a wealthy, privileged place. Compare an American's daily experience to that of a person living in a poor rural village in the developing world. Most Americans live in comfortable homes with ready access to food, plumbing, entertainment and information. In the course of the day we'll see babies smiling in strollers, joggers in the park, friendly merchants and maybe even get a hug from a family member we love. That is the very stuff of optimism. Then you open your web browser or switch on the TV and see the worst of humanity presented in all its glory.
America's economy creates profound challenges for many people. In some cases the impact is dire. For the majority, our weak economy affects our sense of security, opportunity and mobility. But for the most part, Americans remain an optimistic and pragmatic people working to build communities and homes that provide them with great satisfaction and joy. Politics comes into play most intensely when people feel their communities and homes are under real threat. Despite the noise from the media, most Americans in 2012 do not feel that threat.
Nevertheless, in 2012, both presidential campaigns will work hard to convince us that this is a make or break year for the USA. Romney will try to tell us that Obama isn't up for the job and that the nation is in decline. Obama will remind us of all the right wing positions Romney adopted during the primary season to win over the extremists in the Republican base. While there are certainly important differences in both candidates, most of those differences will have little impact on the daily lives of Americans in their communities and in their homes. Many Americans are negative about President Obama's ability to deliver an improved economy, but it is not clear they think that Governor Romney can do any better.
There are major issues and crises confronting America and the world, but neither candidate is really speaking to those issues in this campaign. There is the issue of global sustainability and the need to transform our economy to one based on renewable resources. There is the issue of extreme poverty that persists in the shadow of the planet's growing wealth. There is the issue of the advancing technology of mass destruction and the threat posed by terrorists and dictators should they be armed with that technology. Many Americans sense the growing importance of these issues and they understand that our national leaders are doing little to address them. All of us respond to these issues in much the same way: We retreat to the lives we enjoy in our communities and homes and focus our attention on people and places that bring us joy and satisfaction.