Many Americans see the country on an improper path, but that’s not new to 2020
Ask Oxford resident Willie Lee if America is headed in a good direction, and he doesn’t even have to stop to think before declaring: “No.”
“People don't have any respect,” said Lee, who talked to a reporter on his afternoon walk on Noble Street in Anniston. “People don't respect each other. People don't respect the government. And most importantly, people don't respect the Lord.”
Lee isn’t alone in his feeling that something has gone wrong. As America enters the Independence Day weekend with coronavirus cases rising and nationwide unemployment in the double digits, the number of Americans who say the country is headed in the wrong direction is near historic highs.
An Economist/YouGov poll from late June shows 69 percent of Americans saying the country is on the wrong track, with 24 percent saying we’re moving in the right direction. A Monmouth University poll shows only 18 percent in the “right track” column, while a USA Today poll from the same period has the “right track” number at 20 percent.
“It’s just nose-diving,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, which produced one of those polls. He said the “wrong direction” numbers moved higher after coronavirus emerged, and much higher after the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed.
The “wrong direction” question is one pollsters from various organizations have been asking regularly for years: an open-ended thumbs-up or thumbs-down call that allows pollsters to cover all the bases. Even if pollsters don’t ask about respect for the Lord, the Willie Lees of the world get to raise a red flag that something is amiss. Murray said the rise and fall in the numbers seems to track with the state of the economy and the level of trust people have in their leaders.
“It’s an overall measure of the stability of government,” he said.
Ask the “right direction” on the streets of Anniston, and you'll quickly find that coronavirus and its economic effects are topmost in people's minds — even if they don't think the virus is a big problem
"We're standing on the Bible, and we're not going to let this bother us," said Joe Wilson of Saks. Wilson said he believed the country is going the right way generally, though he said he believed the news media is overplaying the virus.
“They're opening up too quickly,” said Timothy McCoy of Anniston. McCoy said the country is headed the wrong way, and the public response to the virus figures strongly in his thinking. As a father, he said, he's particularly worried that schools will likely reopen in August even though the virus is spreading.
It’s not America’s first such crisis of confidence. Historical polling data shows that the country hit similar lows, or lower, in “right direction” numbers in late 2008 and mid-1992. The 2008 dip followed the stock market crash of the Great Recession, and the 1992 dip came after a less-intense economic slump and civil disturbances in Los Angeles over the Rodney King police brutality case
But Murray sees something more than immediate crisis in the numbers. It once was typical to see more people saying “right track” than “wrong track,” at least when the economy was good. But since the 2008, “right track” respondents have never outnumbered “wrong track” respondents — even as the economy staged a comeback.
Murray believes a decline of trust in government is one reason for those numbers, and he describes the current lack of trust as potentially dangerous for democracy. He said impasses such as government shutdowns show the public that leaders are increasingly playing to their own constituencies — but at the expense of trust in government’s ability to get things done.
“If something can fix that, more often than not it’s because key leaders in the public change their behavior,” he said.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences in June released a 31-point “reinventing democracy” plan intended to restore faith in American government.
Finding a simple prescription for the trust problem, though, may not be easy. One group of experts, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in June released a 31-point “reinventing democracy” plan intended to restore faith in American government. Among their suggestions: limit Supreme Court justices to 18-year terms; set up independent, nonpartisan commissions to draw district lines in state and federal elections; move Election Day to the Veterans Day holiday and require people to vote; and expand the House of Representatives to lower the number of people represented by a single representative.
Darshan Goux, program director for the academy, notes that this isn’t just any think tank: begun in 1780 by John Adams and other revolutionary figures, it was “founded by the people who founded the country.”
Goux said the Academy looked at polls and talked to focus groups around the country, composed of people across the political spectrum. They came away with the sense that public life and politics had stopped functioning as a “virtuous cycle” in which people participate in public life and get results that encourage more participation.
“When you believe that your vote doesn’t matter anymore, perhaps because you live in a safe electoral state or a gerrymandered district, then you might not show up to vote next time,” she said.
Goux said the group’s goal is to implement some of their suggested changes by 2026, the country’s 250th birthday. She acknowledged that some of those changes, such as expanding the House, would be difficult to accomplish. But others, such as independent districting commissions are already in existence or being considered in some states. . . .