This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Donna Martinez, Carolina Journal Radio Co-Host and Right Angles blogger.
RALEIGH — I’m a sucker for political polling. I appreciate knowing what the electorate thinks, believes, wants, and doesn’t want. Horse-race surveys are valuable snapshots of who’s up and who’s down, but much more telling data comes from polls that delve into the psychology of the public. Let’s face it: A lot of Americans vote and act on emotion, not facts and data. That’s why I find a recent poll (PDF) commissioned by The Hill so compelling.
In the October survey of likely voters, half of those polled — 49 percent — said they were “very worried” about the future of the United States. Another 34 percent were “somewhat worried.” Only 16 percent weren’t worried much or at all. What’s more, a full 70 percent said the U.S. is in decline.
This pessimism for the future is also wiping out another core American belief — that our kids will prosper in ways we can’t imagine. Nearly six of 10 likely voters — 57 percent — told the pollster they do not believe today’s children will be better off than their parents.
It would be simple to conclude that entrenched pessimism means voters are in a throw-the-bums-out mood heading into 2012. Not necessarily. Yes, politicians are enduring terrible reviews from both sides of the political aisle, but while voters have disdain for politicians in general, Americans typically vote to re-elect their own representatives. Just ask any political challenger how tough it is to knock off an incumbent.
Take the case of former North Carolina congressman Bob Etheridge. In 2010, a year in which Tea Party movement candidates swept into office across the United States, veteran Democratic politician Etheridge came very close to keeping his 2nd District seat even after being videotaped putting his hands on a young man who approached him on a Washington, D.C., sidewalk. Despite the discomforting footage, which made Etheridge a household name and his “who are you?” mantra a national punchline, he lost to Republican challenger Renee Ellmers by less than 1 percent of the vote.
I’m convinced psychological polling data is less predictive of politics than of personal behavior and priorities. Just look around. Americans are much more willing to change their lives than their politics. For as long as I can remember, living beyond one’s means was the norm. Whether it was buying a new car every couple of years, taking an expensive summer vacation, or charging up multiple credit cards to the limit, spending too much was the stuff of jokes at family get-togethers. Today, delaying purchases, paying in cash, and cutting up credit cards is the new normal — a way of trying to create security heading into yet another year of staggering unemployment and only marginal economic recovery in sight.
In my family, gone are the days of taking things for granted. Bashing the boss is out; an appreciation for being employed is in. Brown-bagging is in; expensive lunches are out. Church attendance and praying are in; living only for today is out. Helping charities assist the poor is in; thinking that people we know could never need help is out.
Americans are simply shaken to the core.
Still, one man’s pessimism about the future is another man’s opportunity for today. In its November issue, Men’s Journal reports on the robust growth in the fallout shelter industry. We’re not talking about ramshackle boxes, but facilities that rival fancy homes for amenities and safety features. And no, the people who buy them aren’t crazies who live in the woods banging out political manifestos. The co-owner of Utah Shelter Systems commented on his customers to Men’s Journal. “Most of our clients are attorneys, businessmen, and doctors,” Paul Seyfried said.
It’s possible these professionals are making a sound investment, but I reject their pessimism and challenge every American to do the same. We can either join Pessimists R Us and stash cash for a fallout shelter, or we can suck it up and do what used to come naturally: endure and prosper in the face of adversity. That also means electing politicians who reflect these values, rather than voting for candidates we think can win.
It’s a formula that’s worked before, and my heart tells me it can work again.