Think Nationally, Act Locally: How Americans Are Working for Change

A poll shows most citizens thing the country is on the wrong track, but they're looking to each other to fix the problem—not to government or big business.
Gary Cameron/Reuters

Daniel Russell has no patience for people who consider the federal government the root of all evil. A 32-year-old IT technician at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, he's fond of citing the many examples of government-funded basic scientific research—such as the project that laid the foundation for the Internet—that later led to big commercial breakthroughs. "Some of the time, the things the government thinks up are passed on to corporations … and the corporations get all the credit for it," he says. "People say, 'Aw, man, the government hasn't done anything for us.' I'm like, 'Look at your shoes, look at your car.'"

And yet, Russell understands why people get frustrated with how long it takes for Washington to do just about anything. He sees how red tape and bureaucracy can stifle new thinking for so long that by the time it moves forward, it "might not be relevant" anymore. It's easier, he agrees, to make change closer to home, through more direct action, such as the conservation efforts he joined as a teenager or the voting-participation drives he helped lead in college. "The lower number of humans something impacts," Russell says, "the easier the change is."

But just because it's easier to influence local institutions, Russell says, that doesn't mean Americans should abandon the hope of reforming the bigger ones that shape so much of national life, such as the federal government or major corporations. "The truth is that nobody has a great track record. An institution may fail, but the true measure of failure is, do you get back up and try to fix it?" he says. "If you have a level of mistrust in something, then take it on yourself to find out why and fix it."

Russell's careful assessment captures the nuanced attitudes that ripple through the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, which measured Americans' views on the opportunities for, and obstacles facing, political and social change.

The survey found that most Americans believe they can have the greatest influence over issues in their own neighborhood; that local institutions such as community groups are doing the most to improve life in America; and that lasting change is more likely to emerge from movements led by ordinary citizens than to be imposed by government or business leaders. But the poll also found that while people see significant opportunities to better conditions through local involvement and voluntary action, most believe that improving American life on a broader scale will ultimately require changes in national policies and institutions.

Asked what "would do most to make a meaningful and lasting impact on issues you care about," just over half picked "a change in national policy"—far more than the roughly one-sixth who picked changes either in local policies or in the way companies do business. Likewise, a solid majority rejected the idea that the federal government was so broken that it wasn't worth trying to influence or improve it.

These bookended findings point to deep public reserves of both engagement and alienation. On the one hand, they suggest that many Americans see great opportunities for ordinary citizens to make a difference, particularly at the local level, on the biggest challenges facing the country. On the other, they indicate that most Americans believe those challenges can't be truly tamed without changes in the major public and private institutions that people broadly distrust and consider unresponsive to their concerns. At a moment of widespread anxiety over the country's direction, these precariously balanced attitudes suggest that the coming years in American politics could tip either toward deeper disengagement, distrust, and polarization, or toward a revitalized commitment to national renewal that flows from the grassroots up. Russell is one of many poll respondents who are hoping for the latter. "Don't just sit there and scream," he says. "You've got to move if it's something you're passionate about. Martin Luther King didn't just sit there. He moved. That's what it is going to take."

This survey is the 20th in a series exploring how average Americans are living through the Great Recession and its aftermath. The poll was conducted April 9-13, with 1,000 respondents reached by landline and cell phones. The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly, Brent McGoldrick, Jeremy Ruch, and Jocelyn Landau of the Strategic Communications practice of FTI Consulting, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Headed the Wrong Way

The survey leaves little doubt that Americans—across partisan, generational, and racial lines—are deeply concerned about the country's direction. When asked to think "very broadly about things in the United States today," fully 70 percent of those polled said the country "needs major changes," while only 25 percent said it needs "minor changes." Just 3 percent said "things should stay [the] same."

Partisan attitudes somewhat shaded those results, with Republicans more likely than independents or Democrats to call for major changes, but nearly three-fifths of Democrats also did so. Similarly, older Americans were more likely than younger people to urge major changes, but even about three-fifths of adults under 30 said they saw that need. And while whites have consistently displayed more pessimism about the country's trajectory in previous Heartland Monitor polls, on this latest question nonwhites were about as likely as whites to believe the country needed major change.

The picture wasn't much brighter when respondents were asked to assess the nation's direction on 15 specific issues. Only on two of them did a majority say the country was heading in the right direction: On "ensuring equal rights for all Americans," 51 percent said the country was moving on a positive path, compared with 42 percent who thought it was on the wrong track; on "producing more domestic sources of energy," the numbers were 51 percent positive and 40 percent negative. A 48 percent to 44 percent plurality also rendered a positive verdict for "protecting the environment."

On all 12 of the other issues, more people believed the country was moving in the wrong direction rather than the right one. Only on three did even two-fifths of Americans see conditions improving: reducing crime and domestic violence (44 percent); improving access to health care and controlling costs (42 percent); and improving the quality of K-12 education (40 percent.) But a slight plurality—47 percent—thought the country was moving in the wrong direction on violence, and 53 percent majorities rendered negative verdicts on health care and education.

Even smaller percentages of those surveyed said the country was moving in the right direction on the remaining issues tested, from expanding the economy and creating jobs to protecting individual liberties. Preponderant majorities of at least three-fifths or more saw the country hurtling down the wrong track on maintaining the affordability of college education; reducing poverty; reducing taxes and government spending; and protecting Americans' privacy.

Partisan differences, not surprisingly, showed up in these results. On every question, many more Democrats than Republicans saw positive progress; independents sorted in between, but usually fell closer to the pessimistic Republican view than to the optimistic Democratic perspective. On the core question of expanding the economy and creating jobs, for instance, two-thirds of Democrats said they see the country moving in the right direction, compared with just 16 percent of Republicans; independents tilted closer to the Republicans, with just 34 percent perceiving progress.

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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