Where are we?

Founding Director, Pew Research Center
We are a politically, economically, racially polarized country, Kohut says.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

 

 

Question: When you read the newspaper or watch the news, what issues stand out for you?

 

Andrew Kohut: Well I think one of the things that concerns me a great deal is the lack of moderation in politics. The political leaders so much in Washington now come so much from the ideological extremes of their parties, because it takes a lot of money to get elected. And that money comes from, you know, the . . . the . . . the . . . the people on the left and right who wanna influence things. And it has produced a . . . a . . . a generation of political leaders who are more ideological, more extreme, less moderate, less prone to bipartisanship than what we had 30, 40 years ago. So that . . . that . . . that . . . that worries me. I’m worried by the fact that we are in a new . . . a new gilded age so to speak; that so many people who are rich – so extraordinarily rich – and that people who are in the bottom third of the . . . of the country are not making as much progress as . . . as has been traditionally been the case. There hasn’t been a lot of progress for quite a bit of time. I think we also have to never underestimate the fact that race continues to be an important issue. We tend to forget about it when it’s not problematic. There are an awful lot of African-Americans who are still stuck, and alienated, and don’t participate in mainstream America. I could go on with a long list of worries, but let’s cut it off there.

 

Question: Are there two Americas?

 

Andrew Kohut: Yeah. I mean there have always been two Americas. And haves and have nots per se is not a bad thing. I mean one of the ways in which capitalism works is hopefully a rising tide lifts all boats, and rich people are rich . . . there are some people who are rich and some people who are poor. But the way it should work is that when the rich get richer, the poor should get a little richer too. And the concern is that that . . . that . . . that that is not happening. And I’m not an economist. I’m not an expert on these sorts of things, but I do see . . . You just have to look at the . . . You just have to look at the real wage gains, and they haven’t been coming. You have to also look at the fact that, you know, the bottom quartile, the bottom quintile remains pretty poor. Now to put that into some perspectives, the bottom quintile in the United States still owns a lot of stuff and still does relatively well to the bottom quintile of most parts of the world. But given who we are, and given what this country is, and given what the wealth is at the top end, it would be great if . . . if . . . if . . . if that . . . if that were . . . that would not be the guess. But you know one of the things that I’m uncomfortable about is in making my case on these things . . . because I don’t make my case on these things. My job is to try to do assessments of public opinion, political values, without bringing to bear my thinking on these issues. And I hope to . . . when I . . . when I do my polls, I try to put . . . I try to put the kinds of things that I’ve been talking to you about – my own personal concerns – behind me. Or not behind me, but to one side.

 

Question: How does the public view itself?

 

Andrew Kohut: Well I mean on these issues there is a great deal of concern about haves and have nots. There’s a larger percentage now than in the 1980s – a much larger percentage saying that this is a have-have not society. When we first did this survey, we compared it with public opinion in Britain in the late 1980s. And 70 percent of the Brits said, yeah, that describes Britain. And only about 40 percent or 30 percent of the United States . . . of the public in the United States said that. Now it’s up to close to 50 percent. So I think there is a fair agreement and a fair assessment on many of these issues.

 

Question: Do Americans trust the media?

 

Andrew Kohut: The American public is more distrustful of the news media than it’s been for some time. But it’s been distrustful of the news media for some time. The public is worried about the political agenda of the media – whether it gets the story right; whether it’s . . . it’s a watchdog for its own sake rather than for the sake of protecting the public interest. They worry . . . It worries about sensationalism; that the media is . . . is too focused on sensationalism. On the other hand, the public is, you know, has a casual . . . a casual connection to serious things in the world. But that isn’t to say for the most part and for most people the over emphasis, especially in the cable world, on the Paris Hiltons and the Lindsay Lohans is very troubling to people.

 

Question: How is media consumption changing?

 

Andrew Kohut: Well the thing that’s changing media consumption more than anything else is the Internet rising as a primary source of news; and the fact that newspapers and other traditional media – broadcast television – are taking it on the chin. And in particular, newspaper readership is . . . is . . . is really . . . is really hard hit not only by the Internet – the Internet is . . . is . . . is . . . given a . . . given a big . . . has really hurt it a lot – but newspapers have been going down now for . . . for the past . . . for the past decade or more. So these new generations, younger generations of people got their news out of cable, or television; and the newspaper is not so much the indispensable part of life that it is for people who are my age and older.

 

Question: Is religiosity on the wane?

 

Andrew Kohut: You know I don’t think that . . . that . . . that . . . that describes it. The new, younger generation is a little bit more secular than younger people were, say, 10 years ago. But it’s only . . . that’s only . . . represents a reversal of a trend of more religiosity that we saw in the ‘90s. This remains an extremely religious country. You’re right about the trend; but in sum and substance, this is the most religious, rich country in the world. In fact it’s probably the only religious, rich country in the world. There is a negative correlation between how religious a country is and what its per capita income is. All you have to do is look at secular Europe, another wealthy part of the planet. And really there’s a lot less religiosity and religious church attendance and all sorts of things in Europe than there is in the United States.

 

Question: Are American values changing?

 

Andrew Kohut: Well I think in the short term what we’ve seen is values are drifting toward the Democratic direction. There’s more concern about the social safety net. There is more concern about income inequality. There’s less of a view that . . . of a strong national security posture; an aggressive national security posture is the best way to protect the country. All of those things are good for Democrats. The political landscape in 2008 in terms of values is looking good for the United States . . . for the . . . for the Democrats rather, and it represents a turnaround from the trends that we saw in the 1990s. We’ve been measuring . . . We have a basic set of political measures . . . political values that started in ’87 . . . 20 years. Between ’87 and ’94 they went in a more conservative direction. Now they gradually began to drift back. If you look at the status, it’s a testimony to the notion that Arthur Schlesinger had about cycles of history. Americans moderate their views. They don’t settle on one ideological point of view. In terms of broader long-term values, I think the most important thing to recognize is that the American public is becoming more socially liberal over time even though there are arguments – ferocious arguments about some of these issues. There’s more acceptance of homosexuality than there was even though there’s not acceptance of gay marriage. The younger generations of people have different views about the role of women. And progressive social latitudes are associated with new . . . the younger generations of people. And that will affect . . . is affecting American values. On the other hand, in terms of government, there’s not a great deal of faith in government. And even though the public wants government to do more about . . . to help poor people, it’s very leery and suspicious of how well government operates. So you have almost . . . You can almost say that over the long term, the combination of suspicion of government and more socially . . . social liberal ideas almost calls out for a more libertarian trend. But you know we’re talking about small differences. Social values don’t change in major ways. It’s a pretty . . . I mean you’re talking about values. You’re not talking about things that change every six weeks. You’re talking about things that change slowly.

 

Question: Has the war in Iraq changed Americans' perceptions of war?

 

Andrew Kohut: Well I think that in the short-run, the public is of the view that (a) we should get out of Iraq, and (b) we should be very careful about the use of force. Our resources are stressed . . . stretched. We just have had a very bad experience, and that always tends to sour people on the use of force. But if you look at the way Americans feel about the legitimacy of using military force as a way of dealing with international problems, it’s much stronger than it is in many parts of Europe. It’s . . . There’s still more support in the United States for preemptive war, even given disillusionment with Iraq than there is among our European allies. So in short, Americans are sort of down on war right now; but the public has a very Jacksonian view of . . . of . . . of . . . of use of military force. Generally they’re loathe to do things; but hurt us or threaten us and we’ll go at you. But the public’s also very pragmatic. When things aren’t working they want out, and they don’t wanna see American lives wasted.

 

Question: How is America changing demographically?

 

Andrew Kohut: The most important demographic isn’t age; it’s ethnicity. I mean the rise of the Hispanic population, that is certainly one. The second one is the aging of . . . of the population. I guess they’re . . . I guess I would say they are co-equal. There are more older people around, and when the baby boom gets to retirement age, you know obviously we’re gonna have . . . a lot of older people as a percentage of the population compared to 10, 15 years ago. And that’s going to affect the kind of society we have. What the baby boom has done throughout its various stages in the life cycle have always influenced the tone of the country. Remember the ‘60s when the baby boom . . . boomers were adolescents? Well that’s when the country was kind of adolescent. So I think that as the baby boomers hit the . . . hit their stride in . . . in . . . and turn 65 in a couple of years . . . four years, in fact, you’ll begin to see the effects of that on the tone of the country.

 

Question: What will be the major issues of the 2008 presidential election?

 

Andrew Kohut:  Oh Iraq will be the major issue.  Conceivably the economy, too.  There’s a great deal of concern about . . . about healthcare.  But the major issue will be what the issue has always been in . . . in . . . in a presidential election.  It is how good has the last president . . .  How good a job has the last president done?  Presidential elections are referendums on the times.  And right now the referendum on the times would suggest people are very unhappy and they want change.

 

Question: Does the ideological makeup of the primary states set the tone for the whole election?

 

Andrew Kohut: I think that’s a pretty good supposition.  I mean I think that it’s not only the primary . . . it’s not only those states, it’s the kind of people who are drawn to primaries.  The kind of people who are drawn to primaries, you get lower turnout than in a general election obviously.  And you get in the Republican primary, more conservative people; in the Democratic primaries, you get more liberal people.  The independents play less of a role in the primaries.  And so you tend to get . . .  The candidates tend to play to those tendencies.  The Republicans are, you know, trying to . . . each one is trying to prove how much more conservative they are than all the others.  The Democrats are all dancing around who has been . . . who’s been most right about . . . about the wrongness of the war in Iraq.  It plays to their constituency.  In any event I think . . . I think you have a point; but it’s not just the states.  It’s also who in these states

 

Question: Are two parties enough?

 

Andrew Kohut: Well many people say that they’d like to see another party; but we have a long tradition of two parties, and I think many people ultimately are drawn back to their parties.  People are more attracted to third party candidates as individuals than they are to the ideas of particular parties.

 

Question: How can we bring more people into the political process?

 

Andrew Kohut: The irony of this is that political participation in this country increases when people are unhappy and when people are struggling with things.  The elections which get the highest numbers of turnout are the elections that have . . . where people are really angry.  They’re discontented.  And so I’m not ordering . . .  I’m not suggesting we should make the public more discontented to get them to participate more.  I think making the campaigns less circus-like would help a lot.  Shorter, more to the point, not such drawn out . . . not such drawn out exercises.  We’re already beginning to see . . .  Here we are taping this in September of ’07.  We’re already seeing fewer people saying they’re paying attention to what’s going on in the political campaign.  They’re beginning to burn out, and we’re more than a year away.

 

Question: What issues are not receiving enough coverage?

 

Andrew Kohut: Well one of the things is I think there’s a lot more interest in serious news than . . . than the media gets.  And that’s a consequence of the economics of television these days, and even the Internet.  What moves the needle on cable news, and even in terms of Internet hits, is the intense . . . the intense interest of relatively small groups of people.  The tabloid audience . . .  If you’re . . .  If you’re interested in tabloid stuff, you’re really very, very interested.  And so if you put tabloid material in . . . on a . . . on a . . . on a platform, you can . . . you can go from one percent to three percent, and that’s a 300 percent increase.  And that’s golden in terms of money.  But there’s a larger percentage of people who feel cut out from . . . from the media.  They’re not interested in their . . . in the . . . in the tabloid stuff.  They’re not so interested in public policy that, you know, they watch all the Sunday morning shows; but you know the typical news viewer will turn the television on or turn on the Internet – well the Internet’s a different story because they can seek things out – but especially television and feel lost; and even in print these days feel somewhat lost.

 

Question: What is America’s standing in the world today?

 

Andrew Kohut: Well it’s pretty low.  We just did a survey of . . . of 45 countries.  And in 33 of these countries, we have trends since 2002.  And the __________ . . . the favorable ratings of the United States has declined in 25 of these 33 countries.  And the image of the United States and Western Europe is quite low.   I mean in Germany in 2002, it was 78 percent favorable.  Today it’s 30 percent favorable.  In Spain it’s only 21 percent or 25 percent, something like that.  And in the Muslim world it’s abysmal.  I mean not only is the United States disliked; it’s literally hated.  And the image of the American people have . . . have taken somewhat of a hit too.  I’m not trying to say that Americans are hated in Europe; but the American people and . . . and the American way is not as popular as it once was.  And so there’s great concern these days about American power, which is a consequence of dislike of American policies.  We’re the sole superpower.  That wasn’t a problem throughout the ‘90s when there wasn’t concern about our policies.  But there is a concern now that the . . . much of the world thinks the United States goes its own way and decides to do what it wants to do without soliciting the views of its allies or the assent of international organizations.

 

Question: Do people cite specific reasons for this decline?

 

Andrew Kohut: Well the Iraq war is the poster child for disliking American policies.  But in the Middle East, American policies with respect to Israel and the Palestinians is also a very big issue.  I think those are the major ones.  And you know they affect . . . Iraq in particular affects how much support there are for other things.  Support for the war in Afghanistan, which was generally very strong, is now going down in much of Europe.  The public’s divided about where there should be German and French troops in Afghanistan.

 

Question: Does a larger picture emerge from these polls?

 

Andrew Kohut: These polls are presenting a picture of reactions to America as the dominant nation in the world at this particular point in history. They’re in a sense providing the kind of feedback that Rome never got.  I mean you have to go back to Rome to get a country . . . to have a point in history where one country was such a dominant part of . . . of then what was known as the known world.  But certainly one of the other things that our recent polls show is that while there is not a lot of confidence in the United States, there’s not a lot of confidence in China – people are worried about the power of China too.  And the Russians and Putin in particular have turned people off.  And there’s a great discontent with the powers that be.  And I think that’s in part because for many years since the fall of the Soviet Union, people all over the world have looked to the United States as . . . as the country that will . . . would help shape how we manage global issues and global order, to use an old term.  And now there’s not that, because the United States is not trusted.  But no one else is trusted.  In Europe there’s the EU, but that’s different than another country.

 

Question: What is the world’s biggest challenge in the coming decade?

 

Andrew Kohut: Well I don’t know if we can only rely on the polls or the public opinion to determine these challenges; but certainly what comes up in these polls recently is how much more . . . how much greater concern there is for the environment.  The environment is . . .  We ask people, “What are your dominant concerns?”  The environment now rivals, if not exceeds, concern about weapons of mass destruction, and concern about hunger and . . . and poverty in some places.  I mean there’s a very crowded global agenda; but what’s bumping up these days is all around the world, people are being concerned that the environment is being spoiled.

 

Question: Will public opinion determine the outcome of the war in Iraq?

 

Andrew Kohut: Well not strictly, but certainly the influence of public opinion . . .  You can’t conduct a war without public support in the long run.  That’s what . . .  That was the message of Vietnam.  And the pressure to get troops out of . . . to get some sense that we’re on our way out is very great.  And I don’t think it’ll be the only factor, but it’s one factor in the way Iraq will play out.

 

Question: Who are the happiest people in the world?

 

Andrew Kohut: Rich people.  Rich people are always happier than poor people.  I mean anyone who says that money can’t buy happiness hasn’t read not only our polls, but polls over the years.  In rich countries . . .  In  . . . In . . . In rich countries, it’s the rich people who are happier than the poor people.  And when you do a global survey, it’s the richer countries where people express the most satisfaction and happiness with their lives.  I mean there’s some exceptions to this.  One of the things that our polls have shown recently is that over the past five years, as . . . as many countries . . . middle . . . let’s say middle income and poorer countries have gotten richer, the people have gotten happier.  More people say they’re contented with their lives.  They’re achieving their objectives.  Their incomes are good.  You can’t underestimate income and also good family relationships and health . . . good health, and you know the basics.

 

Recorded on: 9/14/07