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Essays on Civic Renewal
National Commission on Civic Renewal First Plenary Session Washington, D.C.
January 25, 1997
Co-Chairmen William J. Bennett & Senator Sam Nunn
Executive Director William A. Galston
The National Commission on Civic Renewal, made possible by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, includes individuals across the political spectrum and from many different walks of life, all of whom have demonstrated leadership in their fields and a commitment to the betterment of our country. The purpose of the Commission is to assess the condition of civic engagement in the United States today and to propose specific actionsto be undertaken by the public, private, and voluntary sectors as well as by individualsthat could improve this condition.
The transcript from the Commission's First Plenary Session follows. Click here for the transcript of the Second Plenary Session.
Panel One: Americans' Civic & Moral Beliefs
Panel Two: Social Trust & Civic Engagement
Panel Three: Race, Ethnicity, & Civic Cohesion
Panel Four: National Community & Civil Society
Comments from Senior Advisory Council
Panel One: Americans' Civic & Moral Beliefs
James Davison Hunter
The Post-Modernity Project University of Virginia
William Galston: I'd like to welcome you all to this first plenary session of the National Commission on Civic Renewal, supported by a generous grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. I'm Bill Galston, executive director of the National Commission. I'm going to turn the podium over to the co-chairs of this Commission, Bill Bennett and Sam Nunn, in just a couple of minutes for some words of welcome, but first a few introductory remarks and some acknowledgments. First of all, I want to acknowledge with deep thanks the presence of Rebecca Rimel, the president of the Pew Charitable Trusts; Paul Light, the head of the Public Programs Division; and of Betsy Hubbard, the program associate who has been so instrumental in nurturing this venture.
I would also like to acknowledge with deep thanks members of the Senior Advisory Council who have been so important in providing me with guidance as I've tried to move this venture forward, and whose advice will be even more important as we plan the second and third plenary sessions. Members of the Senior Advisory Council who will be in attendance today include Harry Boyte of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship; Don Eberly, the director of the Civil Society Project; Amitai Etzioni, a professor at the George Washington University and founder and chairman of the Communitarian Network; Ed Fouhy, the executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism; Francis Fukuyama, of the Institute of Public Policy; Chris Gates, the president of the National Civic League; Os Guiness, senior fellow at the Trinity Forum; Amy Gutmann, Dean of the Faculty at Princeton University; Richard Harwood, president of the Harwood Group; Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute; Charles Quigley, the executive director of the Center for Civic Education; Carmen Sirianni, editor-in-chief of the Civic Practices Network; Georgia Sorenson, director of the Center for Political Leadership and Participation; Adam Meyerson, editor of Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship; and Dennis Thompson, of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, head of the Program on Government and Ethics.
I would also like to acknowledge the three members of the Commission who have joined us since our initial festivities last night: Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain, of the Divinity School, the University of Chicago; Anna Faith Jones, the President and CEO of the Boston Foundation; and Mr. Gail Warden, the President and CEO of the Henry Ford Health System. Thank you all for joining us.
Future sessions of this Commission will deal with community-based initiatives that are springing up all around our country, and with additional steps that agents of change, public, private, and voluntary, can take to improve our civil and civic condition. Today's session is intended to build a firm foundation for our future deliberations by assessing the evidence on our civil and civic condition as it is understood by the American people themselves. To that end, some of our country's most distinguished scholars and analysts will be offering testimony and answering questions from Commission members.
There are a few things that we already know, or at least suspect. For example: Many kinds of political participation, including voting in presidential elections, have declined over the past three decades. During that same period, the American people's confidence in the political system has declined even more sharply. We are significantly less inclined to trust one another as fellow citizens than we were a generation ago. While scholars debate methods and evidence, it is clear that many Americans believe that neighborhoods and community organizations are weaker than they once were and than they should be, and most Americans, some surveys indicate nearly 80 percent, believe we are in a period of pervasive moral decline, including weaker families, higher crime and social disorder, declining civility, and powerful cultural forces, such as television, movies, and popular music, that make it harder to raise our children and build a decent society.
Finally, and more encouragingly, some important indicators, such as violent crime, teenage pregnancy, volunteering activities by young people and participation in voluntary organizations throughout our society, seem to have bottomed out during the past few years and may be heading in a positive direction. But beyond these basics, what's going on? What's the relation between perception and reality? Do all groups of Americans see these matters in the same light? And what are the causes of the negative trends that we are able to verify? Using evidence from interviews, surveys and historical inquiry, today's witnesses will help the Commission and the American people find the truth, and in so doing, they will help lay the foundation for practical steps that can make our country better. Our thanks to all of these expert witnesses for the special efforts they have made to prepare their testimony and to participate in our deliberations today. And now for some welcoming remarks from the CO-chairs
William Bennett: Welcome, everyone. Well, these guys are cheated out of time anyway, so let's go forward.
Senator Sam Nunn: I'll just say a few words. Peter Goldmark said last night that the biggest challenge for this Commissionand I think he was looking right at Bill Bennett and me when he said it, and it really took with Billis for a group of folks who are accustomed to talking to sit back and listen. And I think that summarizes it pretty well. But just a few words, because I haven't completely absorbed that lesson, Peter. First, to Bill Galston, for your vision, your determination, and your leadership in forming this Commission, I thank you. To Bill Bennett, for your forceful, effective voice in emphasizing the importance of restoring decency in America, I thank you. To the Public Policy Program of Pew Charitable Trusts, Rebecca, your group, for generously funding this effort, I thank you for that. And to the distinguished members of the Commission, Senior Advisory Council, and the capable staff who have signed on for this crucial and daunting mission, I also thank you.
You know, I've been involved in defense and foreign policy issues for an awful lot of my career, but I have concluded, slowly but surely, that the most important task we have in the world is strengthening America here at home. I've seen America through the eyes more of my daughter and her young friends than I have really from a Washington perspective. About six years ago, she and a few of her friends just out of college formed a group in Atlanta with about 30 or 40 young people, called Hands-On Atlanta, the purpose of which was to encourage volunteers to go out in the community and really serve. To make a long story short, they now have over 10,000 a month working two or three hours during the week, and some of them working much more than that. And that's repeated itself over and over again over the past several years.
One of the stories that really hit home to me about the challenges we face is that when this young group went outthey had some 300 or 400 projectsone of their projects was to go out with a group of first and second graders on a Saturday morning, to visit and to do one-on-one work with people that really needed some adult companionship and friendship and most of all love. They took out about 25 young adults to volunteer hopefully one-on-one, no more than one-on-two. To their utter amazementthey had expected 30 or 40 young first and second graders to show up on Saturday morning150 of them showed up. And of course, they were overwhelmed. She asked the principal at this school, as the morning program ended, why so many showed up. And he said to her, "Michelle, you know the hardest job I have as principal of this school is walking these young first and second graders to the bus every day. They cry when they have to go home. They're going home to hell."
That's the world that we have a lot of our children growing up in, and I think we have to understand that. And I think this Commission has a daunting but extremely important task. So I'm here to listen and to learn, and I think all of us have the opportunity to help to close the gap between what I think is the growing realization in this country that we have serious social erosion and a firm national determination to meet it. That is the gap that I think we have an opportunity to address. I look forward to it.
GALSTON: The format is as follows. We have four panels each with two witnesses. . . . The opening panel deals squarely with the issue of the civic and moral beliefs of Americans today. And our two opening witnesses are James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia and director of the Post-Modernity Project, and Professor Alan Wolfe of Boston University. And they will proceed in that order. Professor Hunter.
JAMES DAVISON HUNTER: Distinguished members of the Commission, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for the opportunity to be here to talk to you today. I'm here to address, to speak to, the results of one of the most comprehensive public opinion surveys ever conducted on American political culture. It was conducted just this past year, and it was released in the fall. The survey was an attempt to go beyond the typical survey of political opinion on public policy issues or political behavior to get to the underlying normative contexts within which the push and pull of politics takes place. Where the average survey is made up of 500 to 800 telephone interviews that last 15 minutes or so, this survey was based upon over 2,000 face-to-face interviews that lasted an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and a half. The survey was funded by the Parker Foundation, designed and analyzed by myself and others at the University of Virginia, with field work done by the Gallup Organization.
The question addressed by this Commission is most often posed by the social sciences as very simply, Is there a legitimation crisis in America today? The answer to this question, based upon these survey data, is both yes and no. There appears to be a fundamental contradiction at play in American political culture today. To begin, the ideals of the American political system don't appear really to be in question at all. In terms of the framing narratives that constitute our collective memory, the standards by which we measure our relative goodness as a society, and the like, there appears to be a remarkable consensus. And this consensus is marked by what can only called a high-mindedness. There is a great degree of idealism that still remains within the American public imagination about America. Americans seem to share some common beliefs about their collective history, and they're very committed to our nation's established political system.
Likewise, Americans express a very high degree of civic-mindedness. This doesn't mean that they are civically engaged, but at least they express a commitment to those ideals. They also claim to be participating and shaping those forces that govern their collective destiny. The majority of Americans, for example, don't want value-neutral schools but want the schools to teach traditional values. Last, and on the whole, Americans seem to be fairly active in social organizations and relatively aware of what is going on in public life, at least by their own perception.
In a word, Americans love America, and they love its ideals. This is not a population straining toward revolution.
And yet this is only one side of the story. Against what seems to be an almost sleepy acquiescence of most Americans to the political order and to their life circumstances, is a rather harsh view of the actual substance of political culturethat is, the actual operation of the political system, and more specifically the effect of the political system on the people who live within its boundaries. This harsh view as to its substance, the substance of American political culture, can be summarized by three major findings.
The first finding is pessimism. For all the high-mindedness that Americans have toward the ideals of the system, they also believe that America as a nation is in decline. And when you ask Americans what part of the society is in greatest decline, it's clear that it's not the military, it's not the economy even, it's not a variety of aspects that one might predict. In fact, leading the descent, in their view, is a decline in the family, the ethical and moral system, the public schools, and crime.
We also explored the emotions that Americans have toward the sense of decline. The reigning emotion is not anger or resentment, but worry and fear.
The second finding is disaffection. And here, the picture is rather bleak. This survey simply confirmed the findings of over thirty years of work done by the Gallup Organization, the National Opinion Research Corporation, and other survey operations that sees a continuing spiral in the decline of confidence in the federal government. Most of the disaffection is, in fact, toward the federal government. Half of all Americans, for example, agree that ordinary people don't have any say about what the government does. They believe that the tax system is unfair. They also believe that the federal government is mostly hostile to religion.
The third major finding in this view of American political culture, the substance of American political culture, is a cynicism toward the governing elite. This would include politicians, but it goes beyond politicians. Two-thirds of the American public believe that the American system of government is good, and yet the people running it are incompetent. The majority believe that most elected officials don't care what ordinary people think. The majority believe that leaders are more concerned with managing their images than with solving the nation's problems. This is also confirming trends that have been documented for the last two decades.
Why is the American governing elite so disliked? The governing elite is viewed by the majority of Americans as insensitive to people's concerns, not concerned with values or morality, not concerned with the common good, and mainly concerned about their own personal interests. It goes even further than this. Eight out of ten Americans believe that our country is run by a close network of special interests, public officials, and the media. In fact, when you combine various indices, you find that a substantial minority of Americans believe that the country is run by a conspiracy.
On top of all of this, the average citizen feels excluded from public discussion. They don't believe that they have a say about what the government does or the direction of the country. And whether they are confused or angry or resentful or indifferent, the vast majority of Americans agree that political events these days seem more like theater or entertainment than like something to be taken seriously. The distinction between publicity, show business, and political leadership has largely disappeared.
One of the more interesting findings of this work is that the pessimism, disaffection, and cynicism is not held most by those who are marginal to the system, not by the poor, not by minorities, but by the white middle class. Indeed, the greatest sense that a conspiracy is taking place is within the relatively well-educated and privileged middle class.
Let me make a couple of concluding remarks. There is no monolithic legitimation crisis in America today. Americans still love America. But as they perceive the way in which things are actually running, they are pessimistic, they are disaffected, and they are very cynical. But both of these things are held simultaneously. They are held, if you will, in contradiction. The question in my mind, Is this situation sustainable over time? For example, we see that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that most politicians are more interested in winning elections than in doing what is right, that our national leaders are more concerned with managing their images than with solving our nation's problems, and that the distinction between democratic discourse and stock Hollywood drama has largely disappeared. How long are Americans willing to put up with this before concluding that electoral politics may be a sham?
So too, the majority of Americans believe that the federal government is run by incompetent people, that it wastes tax money, that the tax system is mostly unfair, and that's it's not capable of solving a problem it chooses to solve. How long will citizens accept this situation before concluding that the system may be irreparably defective?
In short, given the fact that the state is not likely to get smaller any time soon, and its functions not likely to become any less alienating, the question is, How long can the cultural contradictions of the American political system be sustained without cynicism overtaking hope, yielding utter indifference or perhaps incursions into anarchy? There are those who say that the system is self-sustaining, that the procedures, laws, regulations, and mechanisms of power can sustain the democratic experiment through these contradictions, however intense they may become. They almost suggest that democracy can continue without the rational consent of the people and a publicly held philosophy that grounds a common commitment to liberty and justice. This of course remains to be seen. It seems to me, however, naive to imagine that the weakening of the normative ideals around civic life will have little or no effect upon the operational consent that people give to the state over the long term. And I'll end right there. Thank you.
GALSTON: Thank you very much, Professor Hunter. Professor Wolfe.
ALAN WOLFE: Commissioners and guests. It's an enormously great honor for me to be here to share with you the results of some research in which I've been engaged over the last three or four years. Like Professor Hunter, I'm very very interested in the question of what's on the minds of Americans, and like him, I also don't believe that we should be guided by short sound-bite kinds of polls. And I think the survey data that he has accumulated, because it's based on much longer questions and face-to-face interaction, yield enormously valuable information, and it's information that we need to take into account. At the same time, I'm also persuaded that no survey, even the best (and I think Professor Hunter has done the best) can really get at what's on the minds of Americans.
I think another method is requiredsome greater possibility of in-depth, longer conversations with people, in which their beliefs about very very important subjects and very sensitive subjects can get beyond the way surveys say, "Strongly agree, Agree, No Opinion, Disagree." I'll describe to you in a moment my method. But one of the people with whom I talked, when I asked what really gets you angry about America, he said, "Surveys, because they say Strongly Agree, Strongly Disagree, and the fact is I both agree and disagree on a number of issues." And I think that's true of many Americans. So I wanted to do a study that didn't rely on a survey.
At the same time, I did not want to go to the other extreme and do what sociologists often do, which is to study only one community or only one town, because there you've got the problem that what's true for Muncie, Ind., is not necessarily true for the rest of the country, especially when our country has become so enormously diverse.
So here's what I did. I took one city in each geographic region of the United States: San Diego, Tulsa, Atlanta (Senator Nunn), and Boston, and within each of those cities I chose two suburbs, for a total of eight suburbs altogether, based on the idea of choosing suburbs that would be as wildly diverse from each other as one could possibly imagine: a primarily African-American suburb in De Kalb County, Ga., a primarily Filipino and Hispanic suburb outside of San Diego, an intellectual liberal suburb like Brookline, Mass., a more conservative, highly Catholic suburb like Medford, Mass., two suburbs in Tulsa, and so on. Within each of these suburbs, I took a random sample of the population, and I sent out letters from the local university asking to talk with people. And I met with people for one and a half to two hours, without a standard questionnaire format, but with some general questions about people's sense of moral obligation and people's sense of civic responsibility. The interviews were then all transcribed, I've analyzed them, and I've written a book which will be published in the fall, based upon these interviews, in which I tried to draw a narrative, to paint a picture of the nuances and complexities of the way Americans think about some of these issues.
I do not find what Professor Hunter finds. I find a tremendous sense of optimism in America, and a tremendous sense of hope for this country. And I also find a great deal of commonality in America, a great deal of consensus. One of the questions that Professor Hunter has been asking and indeed that I've been asking (and indeed which I've written about before I ever talked to anybody about it) is the question of whether there is a culture war in the United States, whether there are more traditional, more religious, more family-oriented people who think one way, who are civically involved, versus people who are much more free-floating, much more relativistic or secularist. I find that yes, there's a culture war, but it's fought primarily by intellectuals. It's not fought by ordinary Americans, who have strong cultural and moral agreement. And yes, there's a culture war, but it's not fought between one camp of traditional Americans and another camp of modern ones; it's fought within every single individual. Every single individual wants stronger families and wants stronger communities and wants more corporate loyalty and wants a strong religious belief, but they also want many of the freedoms and much of the individualism that has been a product of the last twenty or thirty years in America. And they hold onto these things simultaneously in a way that a survey would seem to indicate is a contradiction (and indeed, for all I know, it could be a contradiction). But for them, the job is to negotiate between these two ways of thinking and to find some sensible compromise commonsense solution.
There are no liberals and conservatives in America; there are no traditionalists and modernists in America. There are just people trying to get the best of the benefits from greater individual freedom and yet at the same time hold onto the benefits of strong social ties that they associate with faith, with family, and with community.
In short, what I find (and indeed this is the title of my book, if my editor agrees) is what I call "modest virtues." People have a very very strong sense that right and wrong is important, virtues are important. It is indeed, as Mr. Bennett has told us, fundamental that we appreciate the deep American respect for a distinction between right and wrong. At the same time, almost no one, except for people at either end of the bell curve of opinion, knows what right and wrong is. They don't know how to apply it. They have a general sense of what they ought to do, but in any particular circumstancewhen facing a relative dying of AIDS or a daughter who needs an abortion, or the concrete empirical realities of everyday lifethey don't know how those maxims apply. And so what they do is try to balance on the one hand their sense that virtue, morality, is absolutely central, without it we wouldn't be human beings, with, on the other hand, their sense that you have to live in this world and it's a very complicated world and it's not a world that offers easy solutions.
What is the relevance of all of this to the questions preoccupying the National Commission on Civic Renewal? Well, here's how I would try to summarize them. I think that the kinds of questions that Bill Galston has posed to us this morning, the kinds of questions we are all so concerned abouthas there been a decline in social capital? Do people no longer trust each other? Have we all become in America much more self-centered and much less altruistic? that these are of course enormously important questions. I cannot report on how many organizations people belong to and how much time they spend with their civic associations, because that's not what I was interested in asking. I was interested in reconstructing people's way of thinking about such questions, and that is what I will try to share with you.
The way I can best express it is that if we compare the present situationa situation in which we don't trust each other, we are no longer as civically involved, presumablywith a kind of older world when people worked for one corporation for their entire lives, the world of the organization man of the 1950smost people believe that that world has changed, that it is indeed something to be lamented, because there were aspects of a world in which we were much more involved, in a sense, with our communities and with our companies. They regret those changes. At the same time, they also see positive aspects of those changes, and that what they are trying to do, as I have suggested, is to incorporate both.
For example, one of the strongest findings that I came up with in talking to people about their sense of civic life and civic participation is a sense that what bothers them, and what they do worry about, are things that are out of balance. I think Americans have an almost instinctive (forgive the term) Aristotelian idea of balance, of proportionality, in their minds. They want to see that things are held in proportion. And they believe that certain aspects of American society have indeed gone out of proportion. And I think that reflects the kind of findings that Professor Hunter finds. At the same time, they think that common sense can be used to put things back into proportion.
Consider, for example, their feelings about such things as downsizing, the fact that corporate loyalty is not as strong as it was, the fact that people now, instead of working for one firm, think of themselves as kind of having an individual portfolio which they move around from one to another. Yes, there's something not especially pleasant in that kind of world. And what it is is a sense, an appreciation for the fact that capitalism, that a system of free enterprisewhich Americans like; they think it's the best kind of system in the worldhas gotten out of balance.
It's gotten out of balance for three reasons. For one thing, corporations, in their opinion, have become much too preoccupied with the short term and in their pursuit of short-term goals have lost a sense of their larger obligations to the communities in which they are. This is not to suggest that Americans are angry about corporate downsizing. In fact, I found that they're notthat in spite of a long series of articles in the New York Times about how awful corporate downsizing has been, most Americans understand that companies do have to be concerned with the bottom line. They understand that corporations have to be more efficient to provide jobs. The theory of downsizing doesn't bother them at all. But they also think that corporations have become needlessly ruthless in how they go about it, that they have not taken into account that corporations are parts of communities and that they have obligations to communities. And people want to see more of a balance between the self-interest of the company and their larger corporate obligations.
In a similar way, Americans think very very strongly that the balance between work life and family life has gotten out of proportionthat they don't have time any more to carry out their civic obligations and their family obligations and even their religious obligations, because everything has become far too fast in American life. "It's all fast foods," as one of the people I talked to said. And if we could only find some kind of way to balance work, which is important to people, with their other aspects of life, that would help as well.
I have found, as indeed other social scientists, such as Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University, have found, that Americans are strongly anti-materialistic, that they have a sense that if you lead a life of material pursuits and you just make a tremendous amount of money, you have not led a happy life, and that the only happy life is one in which material concerns are balanced with family life, with religious life, and other things. And what seems out of balance to them in our present economy is that that has been lost, that sense of equilibrium has been lost.
And finally, people feel very strongly that what is also out of balance are the salaries of CEOs and their stock options compared to what ordinary hardworking, loyal, dedicated people make in corporate America. We all know of course that the metaphor for the decline of trust in America is the bowling leagues. Stock options that reward people who just laid off 50,000 employees with a $39 million advance do far more to damage social trust in America than all the bowling leagues in the world added up and put together. When people think about what bothers them, I mean, the way I put in the book, is, Americans are moral philosophers anecdotally, they make their moral conclusions based on anecdotes. When they hear about the Malden, Mass., entrepreneur who kept his firm open after a fire, and kept his employees, they love that. When they hear about very very highly paid athletes kicking photographers, they hate that. And it's that sense, that a world in balance would have more Aaron Feuersteins, a world out of balance has more Dennis Rodmans.
Americans, then, have a very very strong belief in what I call in the book "ordinary duties." They think that there is a great deal of wisdom and common sense in their own understanding of how important it is to find for yourself the right way to act. Yes indeed, we need religion, we need patriotism, we need all of these things which tell us what's right and tell us how we ought to act, but we also want to retain for ourselves some of our own input into doing what's right and wrong. And what they think most strongly of all is that if, in a sense, there were people like them in charge, if ordinary Americans had more of a say in these things, the right kind of balance would be found, and that the kinds of anger and the kinds of discontent that Professor Hunter finds is because people like us aren't in charge.
Americans like a world below politics, the world of everyday life, the world of ordinary duties. They like a world above politics, the world of transcendental truths and eternal religious beliefs. What they just don't like is what's in between, which is unfortunately what gets the greatest amount of attention.
GALSTON: Thank you very much to these witnesses for their precision and their brevity. We will now turn to questions and comments from the Commissioners, starting with the CO-chairs
BENNETT: One is tempted to let the two of you just fight it out and see who's left standing here at the end. I grew up in Brooklyn, Irish-Catholic neighborhood; the expression was, the Irishman walking by a fight saying, "Is this a private fight or can anybody get in on it?" So I'd like in on it.
That last point of Professor Wolfe's is interesting because it seems to me that's one point of agreement (otherwise there's disagreement): it looks bad for politicians and politics at the moment. If you'd comment on that. But I have one question, the same question, for each of you, and then one particular question for each. Is it your senseis there anything in what you've done to give you a sense, a guess, an estimate, whether you would come out the same way in your assessment if this were America 30 years ago, or 50 years agoit doesn't matter. From your work, do you see a change, a shift? If so, what would it be?
And then for each for you. WhyI realize this was at the endProfessor Hunter, when you talked about if things get worse, cynicism gets worse, why would it lead to anarchy rather than withdrawal? Why do you say anarchy rather than people would go and watch television all day?which seems to me to be a kind of withdrawal that has occurred. And Professor Wolfe, this is a sort of a social science-philosopher argument, maybe. People can believe in right and wrong and still not know what to do in tough cases. The fact that they're not sure what they'd do in a tough case, with their own daughter or their own grandfather, doesn't mean they don't believe in right and wrong. Life is filled with hard choices. They may be hard choices to make and defend intellectually, or they may just be hard to pull off. People may think abortion is wrong but find the case of their own daughter very difficult. That doesn't mean they're hypocrites, or that they don't have a belief about what's wrong. It just means that life presents us with tough circumstances. Could you comment?
HUNTER: There is in fact a point of agreement on his last point. I would frame it in a slightly different way. I think people are committed to their own sense of what is commonsensical and what is good, and that this could work. The survey found, for example, that most Americans are committed to some absolute standards of right and wrong. They think these standards ought to be taught in schools. And yet, when you ask them about the good, the true, and the beautiful, they are total relativists and subjectivists. That contradiction, it seems to me, is explained in part by what Professor Wolfe has said. I tend to view this, though, as what Alasdair MacIntyre called the privatization of the good. People project their own personal understanding of what is good and true and right and commonsensical onto the public realm, and they believe that that in fact is a view that is commonly shared. In fact, I think there is a kind of consensus that Professor Wolfe says there is and that he found in his interviews. My sense is that it is a thin consensus. It's almost a consensus without very much content.
WOLFE: I think it probably is a thin consensus, and I guess the argument in a sense would be over whether a thin consensus is a good thing or not. And while in my work I try toit's very hardbut I try to make a distinction between my role as a social scientist reporting on what I found and my own personal beliefs, I would make an argument in a personal capacity that a thin consensus is probably a good thing for a political system, because it's what makes it possible for people to live together in a way that doesn't lead to bloodshed. But that probably isnot probably, that is a personal opinion. And I can understand that there are people who don't share that thin consensus on consensus.
The question of right and wrong, Mr. Bennett. Yes, this is a philosopher-social science argument. I was giving the weak version of the argument. I would make it stronger in response to your question and say that if knowing what is right and wrong means having a very very strong commitment to a belief in an absolutist notion of right and wrong, then not that many Americans have that. Professor Hunter mentioned the kind of relativism; there is a strong agreement here. The single most surprising finding that I came up with was how unbelievably relativistic Americans are. But another word for that is tolerant. People are non-judgmental in America; they just simply don't like to sit in judgment over others. This was as strong among conservative Christians in my finding as it was among liberal Brookliners. In fact, conservative Christians used arguments about tolerance to defend their positions because they see themselves as a religious minority in America: it's the secular humanists who are the official religion in America, and since the conservative Christians are therefore a minority, arguments rooted in tolerance are serving their cause, and they're very good at using them. I was bowled over by some of their arguments, in fact. This level of tolerance is really quite striking. And this could lead to tremendous fights among intellectuals about whether that is a good thing or not.
BENNETT: Except for corporations. Then judgment is okay.
WOLFE: Yep. Well, the real judgment is for media people and athletes. The antimedia stuff just comes pouring out of people. I actually didn't have a media question, and from the first interview it would bowl me over. And then everyone: the media is so widely disliked in America. Friends, it is really striking.
HUNTER: I think that there has in fact been a change, but in some respects some continuity as well. I think the contradiction that I speak of, that is the embrace of the ideal and high-mindedness, the legacy of America, and a kind of disaffection, a distancing toward the way things actually run, is probably fairly constant. I think it's intensifying, though, and I think that the factors that are at the heart of that disaffection and cynicism have changed as well.
NUNN: Did you pick up, either of you, in your interviews and analysis, any sense the American people are coming to the view that there may be a contradiction between unbridled freedom for adults and the well-being of children. Is there any indication that people believe that that relationship is out of balance?
WOLFE: Yes. I've been emphasizing the optimistic side, and on so many issues I came across this sense in people. We think that people's concerns grow out of self-interest. People's concerns for their children I don't think fit that. It represents a kind of sense that people have a strong obligation to others, and they're enormously concerned about the world in which children are growing up. That is a world that is wildly out of balance.
NUNN: My question is, do they connect that with adult license and total freedom? Is there a connection?
WOLFE: Yes, absolutely. The freedom which is so much of what people like is also, they recognize, problematic if it goes too far, if it gets out of balance, so to speak, and that when that happens it's the kids that are going to pay the price. That's a very strong current.
HUNTER: I would agree with that. I think there is a connection in people's minds between their concern for children, their worry for their future and the kind of liberty that adults have. But their concern about adults is not a concern about their own license or their own freedom. It's other people, it's other adults, it's Hollywood; it's other things out there, not themselves. I don't think they implicate themselves in that.
MARY ANN GLENDON: I'd like to ask you to reflect on your data in light of the premise on which a Commission like this is founded: namely, the idea that people or institutions or associations can make a difference. And so I wonder if you picked up reactions to this proposition that is commonly floated about the state of American opinion: namely, that people think that the economic forces that govern their lives are not only out of their control, but beyond the control of nation-states or governments, and that is another source of lack of control about the conditions under which we live and raise our children. Do you pick up a sense that people have just given up on the ability to change those conditions?
HUNTER: In the work that I did, I found that though the discontent and disaffection and cynicism is greatest with the white middle classes, these are people who have not abandoned the system. They read newspapers, they vote, they want to vote, they want to become involved. They believe that it can be fixed. There is a sense that there's something to build on, but their patience is running thin.
PETER GOLDMARK: I'm an old high school history teacher. And my question is for Professor Hunter, but I'd love to hear what Professor Wolfe found in these living-room conversations on this subject. You talked about the survey work you've done showing that Americans are cynical about their politiciansself-promoters, their interests over the common. Certainly there is a large view of American history that what is special and remarkable about our system of government is that it was designed to contain human ambition, and indeed thought that you couldn't govern a free country unless there was a way of containing and allowing for the human forces that your survey says the American people see. So my question is, Does your work tell us anything aboutdo the Americans now not understand their own government in that tradition? Do they understand it in that tradition but think something is out of whack and that doesn't work anymore? Or, on the other hand, do they have some different picture of what the American government is, and it comes as a surprise that we have self-interested politicians jockeying each other and managing themselves as if they were in show business?
HUNTER: I think the problem is mainly accountable to the issue of dimension or size. The folks who are most discontented and cynical are not discontented and cynical about local government, their local politicians, the local governing elite, the local public schools, and so on. There is a sense that locally things are pretty good. It's a sense that the federal, the national, what happens in Washington, what happens in the largest arena of public discourse, has just gotten too big. It's, in a way, a structural problem. There is this sense of distance. And in fact, geographically it plays out this way as well. That is, when you look at pessimism, cynicism, and disaffection, they increase the further away you get from Washington. It's strongest in the Rocky Mountain region, and as you move toward the Mississippi and the Allegheny, it tends to get smaller. I think it's a function of size in many respects.
WOLFE: One of the longest and most durable social science findings, and also one that no one has ever satisfactorily explained, is how people can be so optimistic about their private lives in America and so pessimistic about their public lives. And I don't have an explanation, either. But I have a suggestion, and that is that instead of spending so much time trying to figure out, to use E. J. Dionne's phrase, why Americans hate politics, why don't we try to figure out what they love about their private lives? And I've talked to them a lot about this, and the crucial thing that contributes to the dislike of politicians is this theme of materialism that I mentioned. Money. People have a feeling that what's driven politics out of control is money. I do not make any policy recommendations in my book, it's not my job, but I certainly think that some kind of serious reform of campaign finance that was bipartisan would go an enormously long way if we were really serious about overcoming some of the anger in American life. Because people feel that it's not just the amounts of money that politicians raise, it's the fact that there's not any controls over it, whereas they're working very very hard to keep things in balance in their personal lives.
JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Very interesting presentations. And each of you presented us with a view of contradictions. Professor Hunter, you talked about a contradiction that you say is really there in the culture, and really there in people's responses, too: a deep love of the country, of its founding ideals, and yet a deep pessimism about what's actually going on. And your worry is that, over time, basically that's something's got to give, that folks won't be able to hold these two views in a kind of tension or balance with one another over the long haul. And your worry is that things will collapse, if you will, on the side of pessimism and disaffection.
And Alan, in your presentation you suggested that the real contradiction that was going on is internal to each of us, that is, a kind of internal struggle between different strains and strands. We've got, if you will, the traditional/modernist fight that we're having within the soul of each individualthat we hold onto moral values, norms, in a strong sense, and yet we're very flexible in their application. And the word "relativism" emerged at that point and got tossed around and I think affirmed by each of you. You seem to suggest, Alan (although I think you backed off a bit in the discussion about children), but you seemed to suggest that Americans could keep this juggling act going on. You suggested it was a sturdy sort of thing, that simultaneous sort of affirmation and flexibility and applicationthat we can sort of hold these things in balance and keep moving on in that way. So one of you pessimistic, if you will, about what the contradictions will do, one of you certainly more optimistic about our abilities to sustain this over time.
So I'd like you to probe that just a little bit more, and especially in light of the fact that you both concurred that there's deep distress about what's happening with children. And yet, Alan, I think you suggested that when that issue comes up, people don't think about it in terms of their own lives and dealings with kids so much as what's going on in the wider culture. So could you explore your sense of these contradictions?
WOLFE: Let me give you one example of why I'm more optimistic than some other commentators. And it refers to Mary Ann Glendon's question about the country. I have a chapter on people's feelings about their country and about patriotism, and I call it "Mature Patriotism." Because what I found from my interviews is the Vietnam divide has begun to disappear in America, that the Sixties generation that grew up sort of questioning their country has grown up. They now realize that with the collapse of Communism and so on that this is in fact a great country. That reflexive anti-Americanism that we associated with people in that generation has really disappeared. They've become much much more mature in their attitude toward the country. At the same time, if you want to call it the generation older than themI realize this is an simplificationthat once believed in absolute loyalty, in blind loyalty, my country right or wrongthey don't believe that, either. They're the people that are becoming increasingly paranoid, perhaps at least on the extreme end. But also they recognize that we now live in a more complicated world as well. And so both sides are coming together, in which patriotism means that I choose to love my country. And it's that sense, that I can put it together, that the patriotism is mine, that I think is much more durable in the long run. It's much more sophisticated; it's neither the total reflexive pro-Americanism nor the totally reflexive anti-Americanism. I think that's good. That's a sign of strength.
And I think that that kind of thing happens in many areas of life. It happens in the civic association realm, too: I choose my associations. The point I try to make in my chapter dealing with the Putnam argument and the direct focus here, it's not the number of associations you belong to that matters. The quantitative debate gets it wrong; we can argue all day about whether people belong to more or less than they did thirty years ago. It's a different kind of belonging. It's a belonging in which I choose the organizations in which I belong. So I may belong to fewer, but they're mine. And in that sense, I think if you look at the numbers and you see a decline, you get worried, but if you look at the sense of subjective participation that people have, you feel much more optimistic.
One area after another, putting things in that kind of personal control, I think, is a good thing. The one place (you're right, where I backtracked because it doesn't work) is with children. That is the one big exception. Children need guidance. They're not ready to make those decisions themselves the way we are.
HUNTER: I do in fact remain fairly pessimistic about the contradictions, in part because most of the pessimism again centers on schools, values, family lifethe formative institutions that affect children most directly, I think. So I think that data supports that observation clearly.
I think your question also brings up again Mr. Bennett's question to me, which I didn't answer, about withdrawal versus anarchy. And I want to address that directly. I think the problem with the contradiction over the long haul is again that it may not be sustainable. I don't worry so much about anarchy on a broad scaleI think that in fact the likely outcome is in fact a retreat from civic life, a stepping away, at least by the majority. At the same time, that stepping away or that retreat into cynicism and perhaps inactivity within civic life is also occasioned by a stepping up of activity on the part of the activists. And there, as Professor Wolfe and I would agree, that is where the culture war is taking place. And in fact, the survey makes very clear that there is 5 percent at each end that are very much aware of each other, they very much dislike each other, they have very different ideas about where the country should go. Those are the folks, in my opinion, who are very committed to AmericaI don't mean to say that they are extremist or violent or anything like thatbut they are going to step into the void.
GAIL WARDEN: I know you addressed it to some extent on this last question. Could you talk a little bit about some of the intergenerational issues that arose in your studies, in terms of different perspectives. For instance, if you take the Advisory Council on Social Security's recent report, you get different reactions. Those who are receiving Social Security right now don't want too much done with it, the baby boomers are worried, and the very young adults pretty much cynical, believing it won't exist by the time they're 65, so they don't have to worry about it.
HUNTER: You've answered the question, I think. The data do in fact show that within what is often called Generation Xnot an altogether useful term, but if we can use that termindifference is the dominant sentiment that exists. Among those who are middle-aged, it is fear and worry. Among the oldest population, you see concern but also a sense that we'll work this out and that America's best days are ahead.
WOLFE: Again, at the risk of disagreeing among the experts, I found that there's a lot of support for Social Security among the young because they don't want to pay for their own parents. They see Social Security as being in their interest, in a sense. As far as the elderly, there's a lot of themes about intergenerational selfishness that run throughout the literature. There's also a lot of themes about how the American middle class has withdrawn. In fact, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich uses the word "seceded" from the United States by moving out into gated communities, where they cut themselves off from the rest of America. So I decided to study a gated community, primarily retired people. In fact, it's the gated community that's always mentioned when people write about gated communities, Rancho Bernardo, Calif. (All the gated communities in California are called Rancho something.) This one, most of the people we interviewed were retired. One was as old as 91. And I sure didn't find from them a sense that they were going to get theirs and if the new generation didn't, that was too bad. I found a tremendous sense of concern on their part, that they thought about Social Security not for themselves but for the next generation. So I find that both generations can see the linkage that Social Security can provide for them. It doesn't take much intelligence if you're young to realize that someday you might grow old, and it doesn't take that much intelligence to realize that if you're old, to remember what it's like to be young and face a future without Social Security, which might have happened to you a long time ago.
RICHARD LAND: I appreciate both of these presentations very much. I have a two-sided question, a three-sided question, actually. The first side of it is, I have a sense from my own (I guess I'm one of those anecdotal philosophers), from traveling around the country and speaking to lots of different groups and getting mail from all over the country and phone calls, my general sense is that Americans feel far better about their country than they do about their government. And that there is a manifest, almost seething hostility to governmentthat government doesn't listen to them, that government isn't concerned about them. But they still have a tremendous sense of optimism about their country, and I guess the best way to put it is, they feel the country is better than their government, and they don't know quite what to do about it. But they're extremely irritated with government at all levels. And Dr. Hunter, I hear in your research that sort of thing being echoed. I'd like to know how pervasive you feel that is, if there is a generational component to that.
My feeling is that there isthat while the so-called Vietnam division has dissipated in terms of a segment of the Vietnam generation not feeling bad about their country or feeling more confident about their country, both groups, on both sides of that divide, ultimately felt like they were lied to and betrayed by their government, conservatives as well as liberals, and that it will be difficult for them ever to feel about their government the way their parents did. What can be done about that? In your opinion, what can be done to mobilize this optimistic feeling about the country and have it impact the government?
And the last part of the question is, What did you find in terms of attitudes and optimism or pessimism or awareness of what I would call the tribalization of the United States into disparate ethnic groups which often emphasize their own differences rather than the commonalities that we have as a nation? And are the people concerned about that? Are they aware of it, are they in favor of it, are they against it?
WOLFE: On your first question, I think it's a very important question. I would refine it slightly based on what I've discovered, and that is that yes, it's true, people love the country more than the government. ButI'm putting my own terms on this; it's not the way people talkedbut from what people talked, they make a distinction between the government in theory and government in practice. Americans believe in government, in theory. They just don't like what government does in practice. And I think that often what happens is that people confuse those. So they just say that Americans hate government. I think It's important that if government is a symbol of our obligations to one another, that people are not opposed to that. I found, for example, and other surveys have found this strongly as well, that people are very very strongly committed to the principle of welfare, that we have an obligation to provide welfare to the unfortunate, and people just as much can't stand the present system of providing welfare. So if we think that because people don't like the way we provide welfare, that they're against the idea of welfare, that would be wrong. It's the way government does its business, rather than the idea of government. I think that's an important distinction.
On the other question, I do have a whole chapter on that. I was very surprised by my findings. I asked people what they thought about multiculturalism, and a lot of people responded by denouncing bilingualism. And I said, "No no no, not bilingualism, multiculturalism." And they said, "Oh, I love multiculturalism, I just don't like bilingualism." And that happened so often I didn't know really what it meant. I think what it means isand the polls show this, toopeople believe strongly that being in this country carries with it an obligation to learn English. They simply do not like the assertions of other identities in an official capacity. On the other hand, everyone's come from somewhere else. And I personally don't like multiculturalism, and most of the people I interviewed were to the, quote unquote, left of me on this. And since one of my methods here was to be very confrontational in my interviews, I would say, "What do you mean by that? "How can you believe that?" and things like that. I couldn't push them. People would say, "Oh, teach about everybody, teach about everybody, sure." And I would say, "But isn't it a bunch of academic fluff?" "No no no,every group should be respected, every group should be taught about." So if you can make sense of that, that sense of what I finally wind up calling "benign multiculturalism," multiculturalism is fine as long as it isn't taken too seriously. If it's taken too seriously, and we become a country in which we have two official languages, that's wrong, But as long as it's what sociologist Herbert Gans calls "symbolic ethnicity," then there's nothing wrong with it.
HUNTER: I want to confirm Alan's observation. There is a distinction between theory and practice. Your general observation is confirmed. I want to emphasize two things, though. It is not at all levels. Local government is not looked upon in the way that you're suggesting. I also want to say that some of the greatest optimism and hope we found in the surveyand we really ran this carefully, because I guess we weren't convinced that it was truebut that the greatest optimism and hope is actually among the poorest and within urban communities. And my explanation for this, and it's obviously just speculation, is that they have nothing else to lose. Which also would explain why the disaffection is so great within the middle class, because there is the sense that the curtain is falling upon their way of life.
What to do about it? It seems to me the obvious implication is to somehow make governmentparticularly at the federal levelto try to give it some kind of human scale. I think Tocqueville's observation that democracy works best when it is local is something that would be agreed upon by everyoneconservative, liberal, progressive, traditional, it wouldn't matter. And I think that's one of the reasons why there isn't that sense of disaffection with local government. So again, there is this sense that the federal government is just too far removed from one's own experience. How to impose some kind of human scale on that, I think, is extremely difficult. But it is a puzzle worth pondering here. As to identity politics, I think what Professor Wolfe observed is true. Serious multiculturalism, serious identity politics, is found most strongly within the minority population. It is rejected by most Americans and certainly within white America. Except, again, within a kind of symbolic ethnicityat that level, there is not a problem. But serious identity politics as defined by Professor Elshtain is largely repudiated.
BENNETT: I want to put something on the table. I'm not saying this is where we're going, but I'm a little worried that we're tending in this direction. I'm encouraged by your suggestion, Mr. Wolfe, that you were confrontational with the people you talked to. Politicians are accused of pandering to the whims of the people; social scientists sometimes can be accused of pandering to the views of people: The voice of the people is the voice of God. I want to make sure you guys weren't too easy on the people, and I'm encouraged that you weren't. They say they don't like politicians; did you ask them to consider whether politicians are doing exactly what it is they are pressing them to do? They don't like television; did you ask them why the hell they watch 25 hours a week? They don't like the destruction of the family; did you ask them why they're getting divorced and not taking responsibility for their children?
I don't want to set up as a model for this Commission, that we go talk to the American people, they set up a list of villainscorporation heads, studio executives (I can join you on some of these), and politiciansand we're going to write a paper that says the voice of the people is the voice of God, these are the bad guys. We've got to come back at them, don't we? I'm overstating this, because you both said, Look, people are conflicted, they're not sure, they're not sure they're measuring up to their own standards. But I guess what you call tension or contradiction we might also call bad faith, projectionI don't want to get into areas here where I'm not competent, where I'll be better as a patient than a therapist. But fair enough? Would you comment?
WOLFE: Absolutely, but I don't think you'd be surprised by the answer. I did, in exactly the way you suggest: "Well, why do you vote for them? Why do you watch it?" As far as the politicians are concerned, the answer, as I said, should not be a surprise: they want leadership. Now I realize that when politicians do exercise leadership, they also run the risk of not being reelected.
BENNETT: But in their own livesbecause Hunter said, Look, the things people are most concerned about are family, the moral and ethical system, the mediating institutions. Did you ask these folks, What are you doing in your own power to weaken or strengthen these?
HUNTER: Well, of course, I didn't meet with all 2,000 people face-to-face, so I have no idea. It is clear, though, from the work that we did do, that these folks do not implicate themselves.
BENNETT: That's very interesting.
WOLFE: Not quite, I just have to say, I think basically yes, but
BENNETT: Not interesting, or not quite implicating themselves?
WOLFE: Not quite implicating themselves. My worry, to the degree that I have worries, is, it's too easy to implicate yourselfmea culpa, mea culpa. It's a serious wrestling with things. If your concern is there isn't enough of that, I'd have to say, I agree. My job, again, is to kind of report on what people are doing, but I have to confess a certain kind of disturbance at a kind of narcissism. And I certainlyit's a very difficult thing you're asking. If someone says, "You know, it's terrible what's happening to kids, when I contact my kid on the beeper" But how do you at that point come in and say: "Beeper?" Methodologically, that's tough.
EDWIN LUPBERGER: My questions all, and I have three, grow out of Dr. Wolfe's presentation, but I'd welcome any input. Unlike Dick [Richard Land] I can't ask three-part questions, so I have three separate questions and I'll ask them individually. One, your discussion about the people being somewhat satisfied, or not extreme, or whatever, and yet their concern about the media. I'm wondering if in fact the media does maybe overexpose the extremes, heightens some of their concerns. It also may be they're killing the messenger because of the message. I am just interested in your response.
WOLFE: The media is seen as exaggerating everything. I should say that one of the big differences between my project and others is that I only interviewed middle-class Americans, because I was concerned about what is loosely called middle-class morality. And one of the strongest beliefs in middle America is that the upper and lower ends get it wrongthe people who are too rich and the people who are too poor. The media are seen as bringing those two worlds together. The $150 sneaker phenomenon, in a sense, brings the overclass and the underclass together in a way, that the middle class feels angry at both in some way. And one of the people I talked to outside of Tulsa, Okla., said to me, "You know, it's either Beverly Hills whatever it is, or Rosanne. It's never us on television." You find exactly the same kind of sexual promiscuity, the same kind of fascination with drugs, the same kind of fascination with a kind of violence, among those who have too much money and among those who have much too little money. And that's what they see the media as focusing on overwhelmingly.
LUPBERGER: Being a product of a typical '30s and '40s home, where one parent went off to work and had a small business and worked long hours six days a week and went to church and rested on Sunday, had totally no involvement in the community because he had no time, but the other parent that was at home but heavily involved in the community, the PTA and the church and the garden club, etc., I wonder how much this concern about no time to do the things they want to do is a product of both parents working as opposed to just one.
WOLFE: My survey method elicited a tremendous amount of civic participation by women in the workplace. That is, "I'm not home during the day, but I'm civic and I have civic obligations and civic instincts, so I do them at work. My employer gives me an hour to make phone calls for charity, or I manage to incorporate my civic things at work." So I think that if you focus on the community as the physical proximity, you're going to see a picture that looks different than if you focus on civic obligations more broadly defined. Which is why I think the nature of our civic participation has changed qualitatively rather than quantitatively. People are just as involved, but because they're in their communities lessthere's no doubt about it, they're not home as much; women are working, they're not there for other thingsthey cram the PTA in the evenings. But they do all kinds of other things at work.
LUPBERGER: The last question is, Being a CEO that has options, I feel I have to discuss this. The concern about businessmen or business not having a long-term strategic kind of concern: How do they reconcile that with the fact that if they are concerned about options, that options only pay off if the stock goes up over the long term and there is a good strategy involved?
WOLFE: People aren't economic planners for corporations. I mean, they don't necessarily understand the full ways in which the economy works. But I think that what I was reporting was just this instinctive sense that there is a long-run picture, that it is very very important to firms, but the dynamics of changes in industries have just made it really hard for everyone, including executives themselves, who seem to move around a lot. LUPBERGER: So it could be that they see the big payoff, and it comes at a time when there are layoffs, they may not realize that one is the result of four years ago. They just take the now and the now.
WOLFE: That's right.
ELAINE CHAO: I found interesting your discussion about how people are optimistic about their private lives and pessimistic about their public lives. And this was exactly what was reported in a recent U.S. News and World Report: "I'm OK, You're Not OK." But I would take issue whether it's this emphasis on materialism that's causing that. Certainly with campaign financewe are in the throes of that right now in the nation, very concerned about some potential breakage of existing law. And it may beand I don't mean to make a political statementthat we sometimes overreact and try to do something when there's really no fix needed. My question is, this whole issue of "I'm OK, you're not OK," isn't this a reaction to a strong centralized government? And again, this is not an ideological point, I'm really curious as to what we do about it, and why it's there. Do people have this feeling toward institutions that are further away because it's less familiar, it's less able to impact, and is this really an affirmation of local grassroots action? And what does that mean for public policy, number one?
On your issue of leadership, I thought that was very very interesting. Bill Bennett asked a very interesting question about, What are people doing to take kind of responsibility? It seems that in both of your reports, people feel that the world is much more complex than the one in which they grew up. There are so many more players in the field now. But the positive side of that is that we have now a very empowered populace. There is now much more participation by groups which hithertofore have never been able to participate. So that's adding a new dynamism, but a more dispersed process that perhaps is more difficult to control. How do people react? Is this part of the confusion, also? That there is more participation, more diversity, more complexity and more process, and seemingly more confusion? And so people want leadership, but we can't define what leadership is. That's my second question. Thank you.
HUNTER: I'll just respond briefly. The data that we collected and analyzed certainly reinforced the observation that Alan Wolfe just made about the sense of optimism about their own personal situation. People are relatively content, at least the majority of Americans are relatively content, with their family life, with their jobs, with their local community, and so on. And they're not particularly fearful about their own future. It is in fact the sense of what's happening out there that they are most concerned about and fearful of. You haveand this isn't my analogy, but it's certainly confirmed herethat people are going first or at least second-class or possibly even first class on the Titanic. They're comfortable, but the ship that they're sailing on is in fact the Titanic, and it may be sinking. Again, that is their sense of what's happening out there. And I think, as you suggest, that a big part of their fear is rooted in a lack of a sense of control, a lack of a sense of understanding of how things work out there. And again, in a kind of backhanded way, it is an endorsement, a very strong endorsement, of politics and civic life at the local and regional level.
WOLFE: I get much more a sense of cycles than of long-term decline. And to the degree that people are unhappy about their public lives, I see it as a trough. A number of people said, "It's been a bad period," but they do think we're coming out of it. For example, on the government question: "You know, yeah, we got way out, way out of line there, government got to do far too much." Now they say, "Well, we've cut it back. Maybe we can find the right kind of level." So it's always a question of finding that next stage in the cycle. A lot of people just volunteered the idea that somehow the bottom of this cycle has been reached, and they sense this in family life, in community life, in a lot of things. People would say, "Things are getting better now. Just in the last year or so, things areI can feel it, things are picking up, I can feel it." So I wouldn't make a judgment when you're in the bottom of a trough. I would wait and see how that goes.
ROBERT WOODSON, SR.: Some years ago, sociologist Don Ridge Warren asked people where did they turn to in times of crisis and of trouble. Did you get a sense from your work of what institutions do they turn to, do they have confidence in, when they're in crisis? That's the first question. Professor Hunter, you said something (I know you said it was speculation, but I was curious about your thinking), that the lack of pessimism or the presence of optimism among low-income people perhaps is attributed to their having little to lose. I was curious about that, what your thinking was about that.
HUNTER: On the second question first. Well, it is true that those at the lower echelons of the income distribution and education and occupational levels are in fact much less pessimistic and in some respects more optimistic and hopeful about the future. My sense is that there is a recognition that the welfare state in fact serves many of their interests. It may not serve them effectively, but there is a connection, and that the government therefore is not all bad. I can't do anything more than speculate. My sense, though, is that there is this perception that maybe there is nowhere else to go but up. And so we have what we have, the system works relatively well for us, let's make it work better.
What is much clearer is the sense of loss, that sense of what Barbara Ehrenreich called a fear of falling. I don't believe, thoughwithin the middle classesit is a fear of economic falling. It's a sense of fear that a way of life, the things that are held precious and true and good, that things that we've come to expect within the middle class, may soon be disappearing. It's slipping through our hands. And if not for us personally, then certainly for our children.
WOODSON: Maybe their faith is stronger, too.
HUNTER: Maybe yes, that's right. And let me get to that first question, then. didn't explore this in great depth, but there are some indications that the institutions that they turn to most quickly, and where they have the greatest confidence, is family, church, and local community.
WOLFE: On your second question, I was just studying middle-class people, so I can't divide people by income. But I can say that while I found Americans very optimistic, the most optimistic people were recent immigrants. The interviews in Eastlake, primarily Latino community in California, were just overwhelming. The sense of the American Dream, the sense that this is the greatest country in the world, that their lives have improved dramatically and will continue to improve, was just overwhelming. The African-Americans that I interviewed in De Kalb County also, while there was a tremendous amount of anger about the indignities of being black in America, the larger picture of optimism reminded me so much of my parents' generation, of people who moved from the lower middle class to the middle class and moved to suburbia and had this feeling that anything was possible. In communities of color in America, those feelings are enormously powerful and strong.
HENRY FERNANDEZ: One of you mentioned Tocqueville, and that brought a couple of things to mind. Two questions that I think he asked about American life. First, he identified race as a primary concern, and our inability to deal with race as a primary concern about the future of America. And I think he may have added class later on, if he had lived past when he did. But in both of your discussions with folks, I want to get your thoughts on that, and I want to get your thoughts on another point that he brings up. Let me put it in this way. With regard to race, what is it that allows America to continue to have this significant racial divide?
And then the second de Tocquevillean thing is the regulation of all aspects of life. It seems that we tend to have more and more laws to cover all sorts of very elemental things in our lives. To what extent does this help or hinder the raveling or unraveling of cultural norms? If I have to rely on the law to make decisions, I either have to break it because it violates my cultural norms, or I follow them and that in fact hinders some of my cultural norms. Thoughts on both of those from a de Tocquevillean perspective.
WOLFE: On race, the polls show that there's a dramatic racial divide in America. Jennifer Hochschild has written a book showing the strong sense of that divide, and at some level the surveys do reflect that. Again, I wanted to sort of try to see if there was anything underneath that. So I asked people a lot of questions about affirmative action. And on this issue, as you might expect, whites and blacks have very different opinionsmiddle-class whites and middle-class blacks, I'm talking about. But what really struck me was how they used identical arguments. The arguments on both sides were about merit. The only question was whether affirmative action works against merit or works for merit. The blacks primarily argued that you need a little bit of affirmative action because we don't have a system really based on merit, and affirmative action will kick it in. The whites were saying we do have a system based on merit, and therefore affirmative action works against merit. But the underlying principles to which they were appealing were absolutely identical, and the only question was a kind of procedural one, about whether this particular policy helps or hurts that principle.
So I think, again, while we can get focused on the dramatic differences between blacks and whites on some of these very very powerful questions, we ought not to lose sight of what's underneath it. The way I try to put it is, I discovered a considerable amount of black anger in America, but it's black middle-class anger. It's "I want to be middle class, I want to be treated as middle class, and the anger is that you're not giving me the respect as a middle-class American I deserve." No anger is really that healthy, but if you're going to have anger, that's not a bad anger to have.
HUNTER: Let me embellish on that, just briefly. We found that on most issues of political culture, as in disaffection and cynicism, there is no racial gap, there is no gender gap. Pretty much equal levels of disaffection and cynicism. There are huge differences, though, when it comes to a perception of the material well-being and the social circumstances of different ethnic groups and racial minorities. On this, whites in America believe that things have gotten much much better. They are very optimistic about the future. Blacks and Hispanics believe that things have not improved greatly and that the future is not very optimistic on that particular count. But again, it is primarily around material well-being and social circumstance. It confirms very much the notion that while racial antagonism is clearly an indelible feature, there is a class dimension to this that is very sharp, at least today.
FERNANDEZ: And as to the issue of regulation and again, de Tocqueville points tosince you mentioned him, and this allows me to sneak these things inlet's say in the criminal justice system, it seems like a lot of winks and nods go on between prosecutors and police, defense attorneys, everyone involved, on what's really happening. That's one example. But it also happens in any other number of fields, where regulation or laws attempt to modify so much of our cultural behavior or what would otherwise be cultural behavior. Did anything like that come out?
WOLFE: Not in mine.
HUNTER: Not in mine, either. I think one can say that the increase in law is inversely related to trust.
GALSTON: I want to thank our first two witnesses for getting us off to a splendid start, and we stand adjourned.
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Forward to Panel Two