Americans may not be attending a lot of community meetings, but running alongside their bent toward direct action is a belief in the power of acting locally. Fully 60 percent of those surveyed said they believed "that average Americans "¦ through their own actions" can make a "great deal" of difference on issues facing their local communities. Only half as many — 30 percent — said they believed that average Americans could exert a great deal of influence on issues facing the country, and just one in five said they thought they could shape issues facing the world to that extent.
Strikingly, Republicans, Democrats, and independents all broke in almost exactly those same proportions. Young people were somewhat more likely than those over 50 to believe they could exert influence at all three levels, but especially locally.
Julia Osbekoff, a 28-year-old homemaker and student in Snoqualmie, Wash., was one of many respondents who said they believe local institutions are much more responsive to average people than national ones are. "I see it working more at the community level," she says. "The closer you are to someone, the stronger you feel an obligation to follow through on the promises you make."
These intersecting attitudes about direct and local action came together in the answers to three summary questions that asked respondents to consider the kinds of change that might most improve their own lives.
Asked what would have the most positive impact on their day-to-day life, a solid 56 percent majority picked "an increase in people volunteering in your community," while only 39 percent said "electing a president who agrees with you on the issues." Even more emphatically, on the second question, 74 percent of those surveyed said that "major social changes "¦ in this country," such as civil rights and women's rights, have happened more because of "average Americans leading on the issue and pushing government" to respond; just 18 percent said such change has occurred mostly from "government leading on the issue by setting policy before a national consensus emerged."
The belief that big social change usually bubbles up from below crossed almost all traditional political divides. That view was shared by 83 percent of Republicans, 78 percent of Democrats, and 75 percent of independents, as well as 77 percent of whites and 71 percent of nonwhites.
More-familiar cleavages emerged on the question that tested local versus national inclinations by pitting the value of voluntarism against that of a sympathetic president. Most Republicans, likely reflecting their frustration about the party's exile from the White House since 2008, said electing a president who agrees with them on the issues would improve their life most, while about three-fifths of independents and almost two-thirds of Democrats said that more voluntarism in their community would help more. Likewise, nonwhites were even more likely than whites to see a bigger payoff in more voluntarism. The tilt was even greater along generational lines: While almost half of those over 50 saw the most impact from electing a sympathetic president, only about one-fourth of those under 30 agreed. Nearly three-fourths of those young adults (compared with only 45 percent of those over 50) believed that more voluntarism in their community would do more to improve their life.