What Americans Really Want

I listen to America — in focus groups, telephone interviews, townhalls and polls in all 50 states — for a living. It used to be fun.Now it’s become painful.

by Frank Luntz(1)

For 15 years, average Americans have exuded optimism and energy,whether they were talking about their political preferences, theiremployment aspirations or simply what they had for breakfast.

But that was before the economic meltdown one year ago. What a difference a year makes.

Today, Americans are boiling mad, and the elites from Washington toWall Street to West Hollywood don’t get it. It can best be summarizedby 12 short words bellowed by Howard Beale, the deranged TV anchor inthe movie “Network”: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to takethis anymore.”

The frightening reality is that where there was hope, now there iscynicism. Where there were dreams, now there is disillusion. Instead ofcourage and resolve, I hear blame and finger-pointing.According to my research, 72% of Americans agree with Howard Beale –they really are “mad as hell.” Second, 57% now believe that theirchildren will inherit a worse America than they did, and just 33%believe their children will have a better quality of life than theyhave.

This wasn’t just any single poll. My research includes interviewswith 6,400 people from December 2008 through April 2009 that allow meto analyze opinions by gender, age, ethnicity, partisanship and more.It is buttressed by two dozen “instant response” groups of 30 voters inalmost a dozen states over the last 100 days. No matter how I slice anddice the results, we’re a very unhappy people.

In my estimation, that intense despair and loss of confidence exactlyreflect what we’re seeing and hearing in healthcare town halls. Themedia focus on the shouting and the extremist slogans and miss thepoint: a once-optimistic people now filled with rancor and vitriol.

And why not? Americans in the unhappy majority are struggling tokeep their jobs as million-dollar bonuses are being awarded atcompanies their tax dollars bailed out. They’re watching Congressshowcase the partisan spectacle we now blithely confuse with”government.” They have learned (with good reason) to distrust theirleaders, their institutions and even their own positive values in aculture that has turned coarse and critical.

The elites under attack complain that rowdy town halls are bad forcivic discourse and democracy. But I contend that their emptydismissals of grass-roots anger are much more dangerous.

If you talk in depth to self-described angry Americans — as I have –you don’t hear raving demands or reckless hate. What you hear is fear.

But you also hear a belief in American values that many thought werelost. An incredible 88% believe in the adage “live free or die.”Conversely, just 35% agree with the statement, “I want it all, and Iwant it now,” and a slight majority (54%) believe “if it feels good, doit.” It’s nice to know that freedom beats obtaining more stuff. Andwhen asked to choose from a list of social and cultural challengesfacing America, the highest priority is “restoring personalresponsibility.” (Even in these toughest of economic times, all mostAmericans are asking for is a hand up, not a handout. )

I even spot some green shoots of renewed optimism. First, the townhalls themselves, despite their negative tone, are a sign of a healthydesire to engage in political and social discourse. Americans areputting some of the “self” back in self-governance. Competing idealsare actually competing.

Digging still deeper, my research suggests that we can dial backAmerican anger if we begin to fix two complaints: the lack ofaccountability and the lack of respect in our dealings with each other.

The core American complaint about politics is that wrongdoing isn’tpunished, other than at the next election. From scandalous personalbehavior to bailouts of everyone and everything except the hardworkingmiddle class, Washington is seen as the source for America’s mistakes.Enforcing rules and letting failures fail would stop the excesses todayand prevent the mistakes of tomorrow.

Such accountability in business would likewise prevent executives atimploding companies from walking away with millions while theiremployees get skunked. I have done “employee satisfaction” research fortwo decades, and I have never seen a gulf this wide: Employers resentthe lack of loyalty and commitment from their people; employees resentthe lack of job security and the need to work longer and harder forless.

For business and political elites, the message should be clear: Restoretrust. Politicians should be hosting more town hall meetings even if itmeans encountering surly voters. Business leaders should be seekinginput from their hard-pressed customers and workers, and they shouldstop paying themselves huge bonuses while everyone else suffers.

If those in power shut up and listen, they’ll hear what I’m hearing.It’s time to heed the anger and reinforce the positive values behind it.

(1) I’m not a big fan of Luntz; something about his profession has a subjective smarmiess to it. But that doesn’t mean he can’t have a lucid assessment of things, either. — FR