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Is Anybody Up There Listening? : WHAT AMERICANS REALLY THINK And Why Our Politicians Pay No Attention by Barry Sussman (Pantheon Books: $17.95; 241 pp.)

June 19, 1988|Detlef D. Matthies | Matthies has been a staff member of the Los Angeles Times Poll since 1985. and

There has been a series of books published in recent months on major players in Washington politics, written by White House insiders. Now there is a book about another major player in national politics--us, the ordinary citizens, about what we think (when taken in the aggregate) and how we interact with our national leadership.

"What Americans Really Think" is a book about public opinion in this country and its effect on government policies; it was written by Barry Sussman, the founder of the Washington Post-ABC News Poll.

It is refreshing to be reminded that the public still does have an effect on presidential politics. The upheavals in the Reagan Administration since the Iran-Contra affair have many of us turning away from public affairs and have left us even more disenchanted and distrustful about our national leadership than before.

Mutual mistrust along with mutual influential power is a major theme in Sussman's book. On the part of our leadership, there is a practice of talking down to the people and avoiding true debate, and in some instances, contemptuous disregard for the will of the people. On the part of the citizenry, Americans seem uninvolved, suspicious, ignorant when it comes to public affairs and "showing signs of life only when poked with a stick."

On a number of themes, however, Americans do have strong feelings and share agreement. Sussman compiles and documents a number of issues for which, he says, there is a consensus, a system of beliefs, goals and concerns that are particular to this country at this time, something that he calls the "public agenda."

Sussman distills this agenda into a list of national commandments and goals, namely:

--Give us a decent, stable economy

--There shall be no more Vietnams

--This nation shall have a strong military defense

--There shall be a reduction in nuclear weaponry

--Don't trifle with the Social Security system or Medicare

--Give the poor a fair chance at joining the mainstream of America

--Let government spend what it takes to reduce crime and illegal drug usage

--Restore cleanliness to the nation's air and water

--Strive for fairness and equity in government and taxation and above all, one main request,

--Give us a decent, stable economy

If this list does not surprise you, do not stop reading, for the most fascinating chapters of Sussman's book outline the communication and interplay between this consensus of the citizenry and the national leaders, the effect of public opinion on government policies, and in turn, the changing views of the public.

Sussman documents a number of events where the national leaders attempted to go against the public and consequently paid a high price. For example, political observers for years considered Reagan's attempt in May, 1981, to cut Social Security benefits his worst blunder as President. It met with such sharp opposition from all age groups and on Capitol Hill that Reagan was forced to back down, becoming more wary of public opinion from then on.

Also, it was public opinion that caused a change in Reagan's position toward Ferdinand Marcos, finally pushing Marcos out of the Philippines; it was public opinion that stopped Reagan from sending American troops into Nicaragua; and it was the fear of a public backlash that forced him to resort to secrecy in his dealings with the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini, an action so repugnant to ordinary Americans that he could not have done it openly.

On the reverse side of the power play, there are fundamental issues on which massive changes in people's thinking have been brought about by legislation and court rulings. Sussman proves those wrong who claim that the government cannot legislate morality, for the same people who distrust the government nevertheless look to it for guidance. The softening of attitudes toward blacks and increasing tolerance for abortion prove the point. A once-prevalent belief in white superiority has virtually disappeared.

Since the late '50s, the percentage of people saying they would vote for a black has doubled from 38% to 79%, and the percentage of those saying they would vote for a woman has increased from 52% to 82%. While neither blacks nor women are anywhere close to holding office in proportion to their numbers in the population, in recent years they have made substantial gains, and the doors of politics have opened wider for them.

Scientific public opinion polling, as created and developed by George Gallup and a few others just over 50 years ago, was intended as a means of improving the machinery of democracy. It was meant to be a denoter of trends, a portrayer of division (or unity) in the community, an early-warning system for decision-makers and ordinary citizens alike. "What Americans Really Think" lives up to these high goals. It is a compendium of public opinion polling at its best, an outline of major themes and trends where statistics are painstakingly documented but never get in the way.

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