"I'm okay; You're pathetic" syndrome may yet save GOP

Posted: Oct 18, 2006 7:29 AM
"I'm okay; You're pathetic" syndrome may yet save GOP

A new health care poll featured on the front page of USA TODAY on October 16 illustrates one of the most troubling elements of American pop culture, at the same time that it offers a few scraps of hope for beleaguered Republicans in the upcoming election.

In a truly breathtaking contradiction, only 44% of our fellow citizens indicated they were “satisfied” with the general quality of medical care in the USA, but nearly 90% expressed satisfaction with their own health care providers.

In other words, nearly half of the American people believe that all doctors and hospitals stink—except for the uniquely wonderful healers and facilities they, personally, are privileged to use!

This “I’m okay; you’re pathetic” syndrome applies to every significant issue in our lives. The people of this country feel consistently pleased with their own circumstances and hopeful about their individual progress, and at the same time they take a grim and gloomy view of the nation at large.

For instance, while the public expresses vast disapproval of the current state of the education system, more than two thirds of parents (and in some surveys, more than three-fourths) tell pollsters that they are proud and pleased with whatever schools their children actually attend.

For more than a generation, all surveys show overwhelming majorities indicating shockingly high levels of satisfaction with their own intimate, marital arrangements, at the same time we bemoan the sad state of family life in the nation at large.

Even during recessions, most people say they like their jobs and feel confident about their chances for personal advancement, but even during boom times (like today) most people look at the economic “big picture” as harsh and menacing.

In October of last year, at a time when Americans believed the country was on “the wrong track” by a two-to-one margin, a survey by the Pew Research Center asked a simple question about personal happiness: “How happy are you these days in your life?” An amazing 84% of respondents considered themselves “happy” (34% “very happy” and 50% “pretty happy”). Only 15% (disproportionately those in poor health and unmarried) said they were “not too happy.”

Amazingly, these basic numbers (at least 80% reporting overall happiness; less than 20% saying they’re “not too happy”) have remained virtually unchanged for more than thirty years. In other words, bad downturns in the economy, costly wars and terrorist attacks, high crime, or the advance of decadent and dysfunctional culture, can impact our sense of the state of the nation, but these big events and trends do virtually nothing to shake our levels of personal contentment. When we’re worried about the direction of America it’s almost entirely “the other guy” we worry about.

How can we explain the contradiction? If our own situation seems so encouraging to most of us, how can we feel so profoundly discouraged about the nation at large?

The answer to that question involves the impact of mass media, and the news and entertainment which play a disproportionate role in shaping our sense of the world beyond our immediate surroundings. In the United States today, we don’t get information from the “news business” but rather from “the bad news business.” Disaster and dysfunction regularly rivet our attention; when a plane lands safely, it’s never newsworthy, but if it crashes into a building or it’s high-jacked by terrorists we’ll get comprehensive, obsessive live coverage.

We therefore assume that our fellow citizens don’t enjoy the fortunate lives for which most of us feel grateful. We see few news stories about schools except when some demented killer invades a campus; we therefore believe there’s a “rising tide” of school shootings even when statistics show that incidents of violence actually have gone down. If gas prices go up and cause pain everywhere, it becomes a dominant news story; when they go down sharply, the media either dismiss the decrease or else discuss speculation about political motivations and grand, oily conspiracies.

The tendency to emphasize problems over pleasantries also extends to the entertainment media. Leo Tolstoy began “Anna Karenina” by observing: “All happy families are the same, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In other words, depression and disaster and danger are more dramatic than domestic tranquility. Most television and cinematic diversions—even comedies -- deal with problems and threats of various kinds. That’s one of the reasons that so many Americans so readily accept the pernicious lie of the 50% divorce rate, despite the most recent (2001) Census Bureau figures showing that 71% of first marriages last till one of the partners die (see my blog from Monday). Whatever the problem – whether it’s job security, environmental degradation, criminal violence, terrorist threats, predatory corporations, marital break up, AIDS, you name it—people who rely on mass media (particularly TV) for their view of the world will exaggerate the difficulties we face, and embrace the idea that the rest of the country’s in big, big trouble, even while they feel confident and pleased about their personal lives.

In most political situations, this tendency strongly favors liberals and Democrats, for two reasons. First, if you’re convinced that the world is going to Hades in the proverbial hand basket, then there’s a natural tendency to blame the party in power – and that would be the GOP. Second, the sense that we face overwhelming, constantly worsening problems provides powerful justification for the massive new government programs invariably promoted by political liberals. If the public extended its sense of individual, intimate well-being to the nation as a whole, there would be less reason to feel angry at Republicans and much weaker basis for backing huge, ambitious, sweeping new federal initiatives (like the “single payer”/socialized medicine health plan reportedly backed by a majority of Americans—despite our overwhelming 90% satisfaction with our own health care providers!)

The one element of hope for Republicans in this contradiction in public opinion stems from the distinctive nature of mid-term Congressional elections. Virtually all the bad news for the GOP in a cascade of recent polls focuses on general, nation-wide, America-at-large questions, but when voters actually mark their ballots they don’t cast at-large votes for Republican or Democratic abstractions: they vote in 435 separate, localized house elections for specific personalities, and in 34 distinctive Senate contests. When a respondent tells a pollster that he wants the Democrats to win Congress, or that he’s mightily angry at the Republicans over Mark Foley or something else, that doesn’t mean that he’ll now actually vote against a hard-working, personable Congressman that he’s supported for years. The Democrats may have opened up a notable advantage in country-wide preference polling, but it’s hard for even their expert advocates to enumerate the fifteen, currently Republican seats in which the challengers now enjoy a clear lead.

In the same way that 90% of us registered satisfaction with our own doctors and hospitals, even while a majority disliked the state of health care at large, it’s undoubtedly true that Americans feel more affection for their own representatives in Washington than they do for Congress as an institution. That consistent (and fundamentally conservative) preference for the personal over the public, for the individual above the generalized mass, might yet help voters differentiate between their own representatives and the relentless media hype about an overall mess in Washington, and may allow local Republicans to fare far better on election day than most national experts predict.