Most Americans Pleasantly Surprised System Hasn’t Collapsed Yet

“How well are things going in the country today: very well, fairly well, pretty badly or very badly?”

That is from a CNN poll. I enjoy looking at polling data. But I must admit a question like this perplexes me. What does this question even mean? What is it specifically asking about? What is being referred to by ‘things’? What was the context in which it was asked? Were there questions that preceded it and framed it?

Here is the breakdown of responses:
Very well 13%
Fairly well 45%
Pretty badly 28%
Very badly 12%

This question has been asked by CNN going back to 2005. When the options of “very well” and “fairly well” are combined, that is a majority of Americans who generally consider ‘things’ to be doing ‘well’. That percentage is higher than it has been in all those years of polling. Even before the 2008 Great Recession, it wasn’t quite that high.

Obviously, most people asked this question weren’t thinking of the president, congress, etc which get low favorable ratings in public opinion. These ratings are at historical lows. Other polling doesn’t make clear that it is about the economy either. The U.S. population is about evenly split over the economy being better now than a year ago. But even that is hard to interpret considering about half the population is unemployed or underemployed. A large part of the population is in poverty or close to it. This is probably how most people think about the economy, as personal experience and not abstract data.

Inequality continues to rise, housing and healthcare and education costs are higher than ever, wages continue to stagnate, few Americans have any retirement savings or even enough money to pay for a major emergency, job security is an endangered species, and good benefits are no longer included as part of the American Dream. Plus, personal and national debt keeps on growing, big banks that were too big to fail that they were bailed out to avoid financial collapse are now even bigger, new kinds of monopoly-like corporations are forming within multiple markets, and related to high inequality a number of serious thinkers including President Jimmy Carter have stated that the United States is now a banana republic.

It probably shouldn’t be interpreted as high praise that the economy is doing slightly less worse or maintaining expected levels of crappiness. In this context, doing well might simply mean that the situation is tolerable enough to not yet incite mass revolt and possibly revolution.

Furthermore, even though supported by many, most Americans don’t think Trump’s tax cut will personally benefit them. As for the future, the population is split three ways about the economy getting better, remaining the same, or getting worse (causing one to wonder, since some of those who support the tax cut apparently don’t believe it will improve the economy for either themselves or other people). The conclusion of things doing well is far from being a straightforward appraisal of confident hope or satisfied contentment.

To consider other areas, I can’t imagine that the majority of the polled believe that U.S. foreign policy is doing well. The war on terror drags on with growing conflict or worsening relations with Russia, Iran, Syria, and other countries. Nuclear threats abound and have received much media attention. And the specter of nuclear war and possibly world war looms in the background. The U.S. military is stuck in permanent occupation of numerous parts of the world. Worse still, the U.S. has never been this hated and mistrusted on the world stage in living memory. Many Americans are feeling embarrassed, ashamed, and defensive about their country’s standing in world opinion.

On a more direct level for Americans, it is clear to everyone that the country is more divided than ever, especially along class and generational lines. For multiple reasons, there are high levels of stress in our society that have been erupting in acts of mass violence and, more generally, has caused a spike in such things as mental illness. Also, there is an opioid epidemic and mortality rates are worsening for multiple demographics: the middle aged, rural whites, rural women, etc. Inequality is growing and everyone knows it, and it is slowly sinking in that inequality is and always was about far more than merely the economy. Big biz, especially big banks, gets about as low of ratings as seen in public polling as does big gov. The favorable ratings of capitalism are quickly dropping while the favorable ratings of socialism are on the rise.

Americans don’t seem particularly optimistic at the moment. Maybe public opinion has to be interpreted as a relative perception in any given moment. Asking people how well things are is asking them how well is it compared to how badly things have been. And maybe the only thing implied in the polling is that many Americans don’t believe or don’t want to believe that it is going to get even worse. It could be that it feels like we are finally bottoming out as a nation and that this is as bad as it can get. If nothing else, Donald Trump as president demonstrates that a complete idiot can be the leader without all of it entirely collapsing, at least not immediately.

I guess some people find it reassuring that the teetering ramshackle of a system somehow miraculously manages to hold together. Maybe, just maybe we will make it. Then again, most of those who state things are doing well could be older Americans who assume that the consequences and costs will be delayed long enough that they will never have to deal with them. It’s not their problem, even as they helped to cause it. Let the young clean up the mess.

Or it could more simply be standard denial without much if any clear thought about where it is all heading. As long as the social order more or less remains intact for the moment, the general mood is that we are doing as well as can be expected under present dire circumstances. Most Americans unlikely want to think beyond that. Whatever it takes to avoid paralyzing despair, that seems to be the prevailing mindset. It’s as good of an interpretation as any other.

* * *

Giving it one more thought, I realized the explanation could be even simpler than any of those above speculations. It could be so simple as to be boring. Let me share the most down-to-earth possibility.

It might come down to timing. The responses are snapshot at a particular moment. It might not even represent public opinion from earlier in the year or public opinion a short while later. All responses came between the second and fifth of this month, a three day period. Whatever happened to be in the news cycle at that moment might have influenced the answer chosen. So, what was going on at the beginning of this month? One of the biggest events widely reported in the news during the prior week and into the polling period was the peace declared between North Korea and South Korea. President Trump, of course, took all credit for it. And, only a few days before CNN did their polling, a crowd of his fans chanted ‘Nobel’ indicating that they thought he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.

It was a somewhat random event in terms of when it happened. But, as I argued elsewhere, Trump did deserve some credit. He has been so unpredictably crazy that South Koreans, in their own public polling last year, admitted they feared the United States more than they feared North Korea. Whether or not most other Americans wanted to give Trump credit, it would be taken as a positive result to many Americans. For more than a half century, the corporate media as the propaganda wing of the U.S. government has never tired of fear-mongering about North Korea. Any lessening of that fear, even if only momentary, would feel like a relief to many Americans.

That is the one thing that comes to mind in what has been in the news lately. It does coincide perfectly when the question was asked. The only other big thing going on was the investigation into the Russians and the Trump administration. But that has been going on so long that most Americans are now ignoring it as so much hype and noise. Disregarding the investigation and instead considering the Korean peace talk, that would explain a lot. If the question had been asked weeks or months earlier or the Korean peace talk had happened later, it’s possible the poll results would have been skewed the other direction.

The only way such a poll question could be meaningful is if it was asked multiple times throughout the year and maybe averaged out across the entire year or across a president’s entire time in office. But I doubt CNN is all that interested in meaningful results. Such polls aren’t intended to be analyzed in depth. They are just interesting tidbits of data for a news company to throw out. Public polling, after all, offers corporate media a semblance of legitimacy while being a thousand times cheaper to do than investigative journalism. And poll results are easier to put into a short piece with a catchy title, such as in this case: “CNN Poll: Trump approval steady amid rising outlook for the country“. Anything that will attract viewers and advertising dollars.