The Confidence Gap: Business, Labor, and Government in the Public Mind by Seymour Martin Lipset and William Schneider; The Free Press; New York.

” American public opinion,” Theodore Roosevelt once said, “is a vast ocean. It cannot be stirred with a teaspoon!” Since then, assorted experts have tried, with increasingly sophisticated tools, to measure the depth, length, and substance of that sea of ideas, myths, biases, and dreams which constitutes the average American’s conception of himself and the world around him. To a significant extent, their purpose has been not just to measure opinion, but also to determine how it may be molded. Sometimes the pollsters have been wildly wrong. In the celebrated Literary Digest survey of 1936, over 2.5 million respondents confidently predicted the landslide victory of Alf Landon over FDR. In 1980, most of the major opinion firms anticipated a tight Presidential race. Of course, the contest was not close at all. Still, if modern polling has yet to enter the realm of exactitude, it is equally far from pseudoscientific soothsaying. Polls do present a roughly accurate picture of who we are and what we believe, so long as the proper questions are posed.

It is for this reason that political candidates of every ideological stripe are avid followers of surveys. In fact, it is a rare candidate for any major office who does not commission polls. The extent to which one is serious about winning is often judged by the pollster he hires. If he picks Republicans Arthur Finkelstein or Dick Wirthlin, or Democrats Dave Garth or Pat Caddell, or, more accurately, if they agree to take on the candidate, columnists, opinion leaders, and political action committee coordinators then know that he is “one to watch.” Without a big-time consultant, a candidate is often marked as a loser before he starts. In a very real sense, politics has developed an echo effect. That is, candidates take polls to gauge public attitudes, and then tailor their statements accordingly. The public, hearing what it already believes to be true, is thus reinforced in its pre-conceptions. In a way, it’s a great system—for those in elective office. Despite massive public discontent with “politicians,” the rate of returns for incumbents is extremely high. Everyone hates Congress, yet nearly everyone loves his congressman. As advantageous as this system may be for officeholders, it offers certain limitations for the nation as a whole. Built into the public-opinion system is an inherent discrimination against those with independent ideas, vision, or innovative approaches, those people a nation has need of in times of social and economic crisis.

If any American political leader in recent times has exemplified both the strengths and weaknesses of government by survey, that individual was Jimmy Carter. Possibly the most intellectually able President since Hoover, Carter was undoubtedly the most skilled in the use of polling, and the media to sell himself and his program to the American public. So obvious was Carter’s manipulation of public attitudes that a famed series of “Doonesbury” strips had a Carter-appointed “image” consultant advising the President on what to wear. In the end, it was Carter’s skill at reading the people that led, at least in part, to his political downfall. Since the public is notorious for its inability, in the long term, to ally itself to any firm set of policies, the Carter Administration found itself drifting between often contradictory policy alternatives in such important areas as economic policy, energy, Central America, and the Soviet Union. Responding to public disgust with the “Imperial” Nixon Presidency, Carter started his tenure by encouraging his staff to take a folksy, feet-on-the-desk approach to governance. Later, reacting to polls suggesting that he did not project authority, Carter ended up conducting his 1980 primary campaign from the Rose Garden while the White House band played endless renditions of “Hail to the Chief.” To the average voter: it was confusing.

Perhaps it was because Carter was so uniquely sensitive to the implications of the polls that he was the first major public figure to publicly articulate a concern that had occurred to many who make it their business to study the attitudes of the American people. Finding, in the summer of 1979, that his Presidency was a shambles, that inflation and interest rates were soaring, and that his popularity was the lowest of any recent President, Carter retreated to the solitude of Camp David, where he met with national leaders, columnists, government officials, and authorities. When Carter came down from the mountain on July 15, he gave a speech that was undoubtedly the most controversial of his career. In the address he considered:

a subject even more serious than energy or inflation … a fundamental threat to American Democracy . . . [There is] a crisis of confidence that strikes at the very soul and spirit of our national will … The gap between our citizens and our government has never been wider.

Carter attributed this “crisis of confidence” to a national “malaise,” and, by implication, blamed the failure of his Presidency on a lack of popular trust and support. Predictably, the public blamed their lack of support on Carter’s ineptitude. In fact, the backlash from the speech was so great that it, along with inflation and Iran, contributed mightily to Carter’s electoral failure in the following year. But, was Carter right—has confidence in basic institutions disappeared? And, if so, what does this portend for the survival of our economic and political systems?

In The Confidence Gap, prominent public opinion experts Seymour Martin Upset and William Schneider take a look at 40 years of survey research to deter mine if America is beset by a “malaise.” Some disquieting conclusions emerge.

During the 1950’s and early 60’s, support for nearly all of America’s major institutions was quite high. Peace and prosperity engendered high levels of respect for business, churches, government, and the media. In more ways than economically, the 1950’s were a golden age for most Americans. Late in the 60’s, however, storm clouds appeared, and continued through the 70’s. Roosevelt’s “vast ocean” was stirred, not by teaspoons but by mighty hurricanes: political assassinations, race riots, Watergate, and Vietnam. And the mass media were on the spot, exploding the deaths of statesmen and Marines in lurid colors to viewers across the land. Wherever there was conflict, bloodshed or protest, CBS and its typographic associates were there. The good news, where it existed, was seldom good copy.

The results were predictable enough. As the bad news and troubles mounted, people turned off. They turned off on business, on religion, on unions and government—in short, on all the institutions that they perceived had failed them.The extent of this alienation is appalling. In 1965, nearly two-thirds of the public expressed confidence in business. Today, only one-sixth of the population does. An even smaller percentage has faith in labor unions, while 61 percent says that something is “morally wrong” with the country. Participation in government has decreased significantly, and feelings of political powerlessness have increased even more dramatically. Currently, two thirds of the public believes that what they think “really doesn’t count.” Nearly the same margin endorses the idea that “people with power” are out to take ad vantage of them. And, in what may be the most telling evidence of the depth of popular cynicism, a majority of those surveyed in a 1978 Yankelovich, Skelly and White poll felt that both “big businessmen” and “labor leaders” were “generally immoral and unethical.”

If perceptions such as these existed in a vacuum, they’d be bad enough. Unfortunately, as the late Richard Weaver put it, “ideas have consequences.” To the extent that citizens feel powerless, to the degree that they’re distrustful of those institutions which are supposed to provide meaning and dimension to their lives, the world that they act within and upon will be affected in manifold and subtle ways. Within the political system, for example, pollsters have discerned the emergence of an almost schizoid public persona in recent years. Upon the selection of a new President Carter, Ford, Reagan; it hardly matters who—confidence in nearly all institutions rises. Within months, as the cur rent man on a white horse proves to be a mere mortal, his ratings plummet while credence in other institutions sinks as well. This Janus-headed popular approach extends into public policy. During the Afghanistan invasion, people demanded more defense spending and military superiority. A short time later, in referendums across the nation, many people supported a nuclear freeze. Similarly, citizens tell pollsters that they favor “less government spending,” while endorsing more tax support for medicine, education, social security, and pollution control. People, it appears, will not be satisfied. Nor will they be patient. This makes the task of governance difficult for any administration.

Even so, the problem of the “confidence gap” extends far beyond difficulties in the political sphere. The Great Divorce between the American people and American institutions has sent reverberations throughout the nation. Its echoes are reflected in the significant in crease in job dissatisfaction over the last decade, in our productivity decline, in low voter turnouts, in falling church memberships, and in the rise of mysticism and cults. Accordingly, the pervasive sense of alienation, the implicit break down of America’s traditionally Burkean compromise between limited government, personal independence, and strong institutions, has turned some minds to the drawing of parallels. Are we, after all, perched on the edge of social and political catastrophe? Is ours, perhaps, the fate of Weimar Germany or prerevolution France?

Happily, if the polls cited in The Confidence Gap may be relied upon, the answer must still be “no.” If Americans react negatively to their institutions, or more accurately, to the leadership of their institutions, they still strongly sup port the philosophical underpinnings of the American system. As much as the public may distrust business, free enterprise itself is almost universally admired. As despised as the unions are, most Americans would rather have them around than do without them. And while about half the population doesn’t bother to vote, nearly everyone believes he should.

Despite this vote of confidence where it most counts, it’s incumbent on all those in positions of leadership in today’s institutions not to be complacent. If the system itself remains sound, the fact of public disapproval can have disastrous consequences for those businesses, unions, and government agencies un able to bridge the chasm of distrust. Possibly because it is more directly affected by public pressure, business responded early to the “confidence crisis,” largely through its image-boosting “pub lic service” ad programs. Unfortunately, such commercials are often perceived by the public as examples of corporate greed, so they’ve produced limited results. More recently, businesses have tried to fight alienation with participation, its natural antidote. In factories across the land, both work-related “quality circle” programs, which include workers in management decisions, and employee-awareness programs, which communicate essentials about private enterprise, are catching on and yielding results. Unions, too, are beginning to react. Some of the more progressive ones are starting to work with management to encourage both cooperation and production, formerly two goals far removed from the interests of the union leader ship. In government also antialienation efforts can be discerned. In essence, President Reagan’s “New Federalism” program is an attempt to move government closer to the people, thus enhancing popular participation in the decision making process. Significantly, this concept was the
single Republican proposal most favored by voters during the 1980 Carter-Reagan presidential debate. Should that tell us something?

Any problem—disease, social condition, or marital dispute—that is not thoughtfully tended to usually gets worse. As Browning said of quite a different subject but in a relevant context:

When faith and hope are gone the man is dead.

For Americans, hope for the future is diminished, if not quite gone. Faith in our leadership is lacking. Faith in the soundness of our basic political and economic structures remains. If we are unable to restore hope, if we are unable to believe in those around us, that basic faith itself will soon come under attack. If it does, the “confidence gap” will quickly become the “confidence crisis.” Given his slavish devotion to epitomizing the public will at any given moment, it’s ironic that Jimmy Carter said it best:

What can we do? First of all, we must face the truth and change our course. … Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we have.