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Book Review : Pollster's View of U.S.--Gloom, Despair


Inside America: Who We Are, What We Think, Where We're Headed by Louis Harris (Vintage Books/Random House: $7.95; 288 pp.)

The pollster is the oracle of American politics, commerce and popular culture: A presidential candidate or a cereal manufacturer or a motion picture producer will rely on public opinion polls to discover what the American people want to hear, to buy, to believe.

So when veteran pollster Louis Harris reveals the arcane knowledge of his craft in "Inside America," we are privy to the extensive insights that shape our lives and our destinies.

But what I found truly surprising about Harris' book is its sheer gloom and despair--"Inside America" is a low-key jeremiad that portrays Americans in the '80s as "stress-ridden, alienated and frenetic," self-serving and hyper-materialistic, well-meaning but alarmingly hypocritical.

Harris offers 65 mini-chapters that set forth the results of recent public opinion polling on everything from the location of litter boxes (39% are found in basements, 1% in living rooms) to gun ownership ("44% of the 87 million households in the land possess a gun") to attitudes toward AIDS (84% of the public is at least "moderately confident" that a cure will be discovered in the next few years).

At first, I found myself questioning whether these statistical tidbits tell us anything profound or enduring about America; isn't the national psyche more accurately revealed in arts and letters, folklore and folkways? But the whole of Harris' work is far greater than the sum of its parts--"Inside America" is a harrowing portrait of a nation and a people at war with themselves.

Morally Ambivalent

We learn, for instance, that Americans are God-fearing but morally ambivalent. Harris reports that "95% of the American people say they believe in God," yet "a clear-cut 58% of these same people are not at all regular church or synagogue attenders."

By 56% to 40%, "most Americans feel that to perform an abortion is the equivalent of murder," but 67% to 30% "feel that as long as a woman and her doctor agree, abortion should be permitted."

When asked what most Americans would do if offered an opportunity to engage in illegal insider trading in the stock market, "a big 82% to 14% said most people would buy the stock--even though they knew it was illegal to do so."

Cheating on Taxes

And more than half of all yuppies (whom Harris defines rather simplistically as anyone between 18 and 39 years of age with at least some college education) "admitted that they did their own income taxes so that they could cheat."

Harris points out the contrast between what Americans say and what they do. For instance, "A substantial 77% of Americans claim they exercise regularly, but no more than 30% . . . really take serious exercise," he writes. "Ironically, when asked what they should be eating, a majority of people are able to come up with a goodly and healthy mix of chicken and fish, fresh vegetables and fruits. . . . But much of this appears to be lip service. When they get inside a supermarket or especially when they go out to eat, the American people revert to what can only be viewed as a nutritionally disastrous diet."

And the pursuit of money, not happiness, is the engine of the American dream: "Since 1973 the number of hours worked by Americans has increased by 20%, while the amount of leisure time available to the average person has dropped by 32%," Harris reports. "Prevailing sentiment is widely recognized by eight in 10 people and can be summed up thus: to make a lot of money is not only desirable, it is the in thing to do."

And he concludes: "The era has produced the kind of leadership that encourages attitudes such as these, and these attitudes in turn spawn new leadership that makes the notion of making it big at any cost more deeply ingrained. Put bluntly, in these Reagan years especially, society has put a premium on making it big."

Sense of Alienation

Despite the moral ascendancy of "making it big"--or perhaps because of it--Harris and his fellow pollsters have detected a profound sense of alienation, powerlessness and despair in the American people.

A superficial majority of 63% claims that "their life is highly satisfying," but the hard reality is that "a substantial 60% of the adult population feels alienated from the power structure . . . 81% of the public feel that 'the rich get richer and the poor get poorer' . . . 60% say their feelings are summed up in the charge that 'what I think doesn't count much anymore' and 55% of the nation are convinced that 'the people running the country don't really care what happens to me.' "

And public confidence in virtually every major institution in America--organized religion, schools, courts, government, doctors, big business, the White House, the military, the press, and so on--has declined sharply.

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