January 17, 1997

The Optimism Gap Grows

Politics, Morality, Entitlements Sap Confidence

Introduction and Summary

As 1996 drew to a close Americans were evaluating their lives much the way they have over the past four decades during good economic times. Most feel they have made personal progress over the past five years, and most are optimistic about the future. Financial stability, good health and a strong family life are the things that people hope for and worry about as they have in the past. While the public’s self evaluation is very familiar, its appraisal of the nation is strikingly different. Americans are much less positive about the state of the country than they have been in 15 years, and they are even more pessimistic about the prospects for “national progress.”

The factors that shape the public’s sense of the state of their nation are also quite different than they once were. Worries about the Cold War and international competition with the Soviet Union have given way to concern about seemingly intractable moral and social problems. Further, partisanship and political views now animate views about the country’s future much more than they once did.

These are the findings of a special Pew Research Center nationwide survey of 1,204 adult Americans conducted in mid- November in conjunction with the PBS State of the Union series. Respondents were asked to rate their personal lives and the state of the nation using a series of questions employed by survey researchers since 1959.1 In previous surveys Americans usually rated their own lives higher than that of the country as a whole.2 In 1996, however, the gap between optimism about personal future and about the country’s future is unprecedented.

Americans’ optimism about their own present and future is at near record levels. They score their personal circumstances today and five years ahead, as positively as they did in the mid-1980s, during the Reagan economic boom years.

In contrast, they rate the state of the nation today nearly as low as in bad economic times or when political scandal soured the public mood. Just once in four decades of polling has the public rated the current state of the union substantially lower than today — in 1974, when the Watergate scandal demoralized the country.

One of the longest periods of economic expansion and a record-breaking bull market has not translated into elation about national progress. In fact, on average Americans think the country is in worse shape today (5.4 rating)* than it was five years ago (5.6). In percentage terms, 39% rate the country’s status lower today than they believe it was five years ago, 32% rate it higher now than then, and 25% rate past and present the same. [*NOTE: On an 11 point scale.]

The public’s lack of a sense of national progress is more than matched by its lack of optimism about the country’s future course. When asked to look forward five years and estimate where the country will be at that time, respondents gave a lower average rating (5.7) than did participants in all 12 previous surveys conducted over the last 36 years. In fact, the only survey yielding a comparable level of national pessimism, again, was conducted during the Watergate era (April 1974).

In percentage terms, 41% are optimists about the nation’s future, while 33% are pessimists. This compares starkly to 55% who are optimists about their personal lives, while only 13% are pessimists. Historically, the gap between these two measures is at an all time high.

Partisanship Colors Outlook

The greater politicalization of the country today is playing a significant part in the extent of pessimism observed in the survey. Only Clinton voters and Democrats tend to be optimistic about where the country is headed. Dole voters, Perot voters, and Republicans tend to be pessimistic, while non-voters and Independents divide about evenly between optimists and pessimists. For example, Democrats rate the country’s future substantially higher than Republicans do (6.4 vs. 5.0). While the ratings of Independents fall between those of members of the two parties (5.5).

In contrast, in a comparable Gallup survey in 1972, those who identified with the Republican Party of incumbent Richard Nixon rated the country’s future only slightly higher than those aligned with his Democratic opposition (a mean rating of 6.6 vs. 6.3). More recently, in 1989 the partisan gap in the ratings for the country’s future was smaller than it is today, but greater than it had been in 1972 (6.8 for Republicans vs. 6.0 for Democrats).

The impact of partisanship on the outlook of Americans for their country seems to fly in the face of post-election polls that show a solid second honeymoon for Bill Clinton. But, the historical reality is that Clinton is getting less of a public opinion lift than other presidents who have been returned to office in recent years. With depressed voter turnout and a third party presidential candidate drawing votes away from both major party nominees, only about one in four adult Americans personally voted to return Clinton to the White House. The President’s current approval rating of 57% may be among his highest to date, but it is the lowest rating for any president since World War II recorded immediately after re-election to a second term.

And Different Problems…

The end of the Cold War and the absence of an external enemy may also be a significant factor in the increasingly pessimistic and partisan view of the country. In previous surveys when respondents were asked to express in their own words their hopes and fears for the nation, worries about war and peace dominated the answers. Today Americans put more relative emphasis on hopes for economic progress, reductions in crime, and improved public morality. While hopes and worries about peace and national security are much less prevalent than in the 1960s and 70s,3 there are also significantly fewer mentions of social progress and improvements to the environment.

With a greater focus on domestic issues, national progress is less apparent to Americans. For example, pluralities or majorities think the country is losing ground on 15 of 17 problem areas tested in this survey. Even in areas where objective indicators show gains (deficit reduction and lower crime rates) most respondents in the survey said these problems are worsening.

The Morality Crisis Fuels Pessimism

Three of the four national problems that over 60% of survey respondents say are increasing in severity relate to moral and social decline: crime (61%), drugs (64%), and low moral and ethical standards (62%). Half (52%) also believe the quality of the public schools is deteriorating.

Perceptions of a nation overwhelmed by moral and social problems are strongly linked to pessimism about the country’s future. By a margin of 74% to 54%, pessimists are more likely than optimists to believe that crime is becoming a worse problem nationally. Crime is the one concern found to be driving pessimism among all major political subgroups, including those who voted for Clinton, those who voted for other presidential candidates, and those who decided not to vote at all. Eight in ten (79%) pessimists predict that the crime rate will be higher in the year 2000.

When asked to describe their wishes or hopes for the country’s future in their own words, pessimists are more likely than optimists to call for more morality in society or greater influence of religion (15% vs. 7%). Pessimists more often say that low moral and ethical standards are a growing national problem (71% vs. 60%). Concern about falling morals and ethics ranks second only to increasing crime in explaining pessimism among Dole/Perot voters.

Pessimists are also significantly more likely than optimists to believe the country is losing ground on the drug problem (73% vs. 60%) and the quality of public education (61% vs. 49%). By a wide margin, pessimists more often predict that the public education system will get worse by the year 2000 (51% vs. 29%). Among Clinton voters and non-voters, concern about falling behind on education is one of the major factors characterizing pessimists. Perception of a worsening drug problem is another contributor to pessimism among Clinton voters.

Entitlement Worries

Americans seem unaware of — or take little comfort from — reports of recent progress in deficit reduction. Although down from 60% in 1995, about half (48%) the public still believes the country is losing ground in dealing with the deficit; only about a quarter (23%) see progress on this front. There is widespread concern about the potential for a future fiscal crisis in Social Security and Medicare: about two-thirds (65%) believe the country is losing ground in its efforts to keep these entitlement programs financially sound. Over two-thirds (70%) predict this problem will get worse by the year 2000.

One of the biggest differences between pessimists and optimists is in perceptions of the federal budget deficit. Pessimists are more likely than optimists to believe the country is losing ground in dealing with the deficit (63% vs. 41%), and to feel the deficit is having a major impact on their own lives (34% vs. 23%). Pessimists are also more likely to think the country is losing ground in keeping Social Security and Medicare financially sound (75% vs. 61%) and to believe these entitlement programs will be in worse financial shape by the year 2000 (81% vs. 66%).

While pessimistic Dole/Perot voters are more worried about moral and social decline, pessimistic Clinton voters are concerned about the deficit and threats to entitlement programs. Among Clinton voters, pessimists are more likely to think the country is losing ground on the deficit (55% vs. 28%) and the financial soundness of Social Security/Medicare (77% vs. 53%) and to predict that old-age entitlement programs will be in worse shape by the year 2000 (77% vs. 57%).

Will the Economic Recovery Last?

Only in the last year have Americans begun to acknowledge improvement in the national economy, and there is fear that improved economic conditions will not last. Although people feel personally more financially secure these days, majorities see job security (58%), high taxes (55%), and poverty/homelessness (54%) as growing problems at the national level, and half (51%) see the country falling behind in the availability of good paying jobs.

The public is divided over whether the economy will be stronger (53%) or weaker (42%) by the year 2000. One of the biggest differences between those with pessimistic and optimistic views of the nation’s future is in expectations for the national economy. Six in ten (59%), compared with only a third (33%) of optimists, predict a weaker economy.

Pessimists of all political persuasions more often than optimists foresee a worse economy ahead. Among non-voters, pessimism is also associated with the belief that high taxes and lack of good paying jobs are growing problems. Poverty and homelessness are national problems linked to pessimism among Clinton voters.

Continued Concern about Health Care

Although the public ultimately rejected Bill Clinton’s ambitious health care reform proposals, health care persists as a public concern — especially for those with bad feelings about the country’s future. Roughly half of American adults (52%) now think the country is losing ground in the way the health care system is working, while less than a quarter (20%) see progress being made. The managed care revolution has not done much to make people confident that health care costs will be brought under control. Looking ahead to the year 2000, six in ten (61%) think health care will be less affordable than it is now.

Pessimists about the nation’s future are more likely than optimists to believe that health care will be less affordable by the year 2000 (71% to 54%). Concern about health care costs ranks as one of the major factors distinguishing pessimists from optimists among non-voters, who may see gridlock between Republicans and Democrats as the legacy of the 1994 health care debate.

Political Reform

Americans rate the power of special interest groups in politics as about as great a threat to the future of country as international terrorism and illegal aliens. Half (49%) feel the country is losing ground in its efforts to fight political corruption. The most positive indication in the survey was that respondents were at worst divided over whether the campaign finance system will be reformed by the year 2000 — 47% thought it would be achieved, 46% thought not. Only a majority of Democrats (55%) and Clinton voters (54%) expect reform to happen in the next four years. Non-voters with a pessimistic view of the country’s future were especially bearish on the prospects for reform (37%).

Ambivalence about Government and the News Media

The public is unsure about what national problem deserves the top priority for government action. Moreover, many perceive government as part of the problem as well as the solution. Seven in ten (70%) Americans think a major role for government is critical to a better future for the country — more than see a similar role for big corporations (59%), small businesses (51%) and religion (52%). However, at a time when confidence in political leaders is very low, people’s reservations about government are also apparent. More than four in ten (43%) say government is a major threat to the country’s future. Evaluations of the news media were similarly double barreled. Half (50%) of the Pew sampling felt news organizations would play a big role in the country’s improvement, while almost as many (39%) thought the media represented a major threat to the country’s future.

Post-industrial Americans put the most faith in science and technology and academia to bring about positive change. Three- quarters of adults interviewed think science and technology (77%) and schools and universities (77%) must play a major role if this country is to have a better future. One of the few signs of optimism about the country’s future is the majority opinion (59%) that public education will improve by the year 2000. And there is less concern about technology having adverse effects on society than there is about the role of government. Only three in ten Americans (29%) regard “the pace of technological change” as a major threat to the country’s future.

  1. Respondents are asked to rate the country's -- as well as their own -- past, present and future state on a rating scale of 0 to 10, where the top rung represents the best possible situation and the bottom rung the worst possible situation.
  2. Only in the 1950's and early 1960's did Americans feel as positively about the country as they did about themselves.
  3. William Watts and Lloyd Free. State of the Nation (Potomac Associates). New York: Universe Books,1973