I do not, as a rule, put much stock in public polling. But in the same way that others read celebrity gossip or blogs about goings-on among churchmen in Rome, which is to say, furtively, with an occasional backward glance lest my wife should discover my secret shame, I do in fact sometimes read opinion surveys all the same, even as I disclaim the idea that what they have to tell us is of any value.
Grinnell College recently published the results of a wide-ranging poll of Americans aged 18 and older. Participants were asked to give their views on a variety of subjects: not only the current presidential administration and its handling of “the economy” (whatever that means) and the virus and so on, but everything from cannabis to the relative degree of deference that should be afforded to the opinions of scientists, school teachers, clergymen, and university administrators.
This is the part where I feign the same sort of outrage that you find among housewives who pretend to be angry rather than titillated by details about the latest Kardashian divorce. Can it be true that 82 percent of Americans trust public school teachers—that is, ordinary people with bachelor’s degrees, many of whom spent the last year hiding their vacations from their Zoom students—more than than any other group or class with the exception of doctors and nurses? Do fewer than half of my fellow citizens believe that “sincerely held religious views” are more important than government “rules and regulations” of any kind? Apparently more than half of them believe that women should be able to hire hitmen (to borrow an apposite image from the pope) to deal with their unborn children. Only a third believe it is okay to drive occasionally without a seatbelt. Ninety percent say that each of us should be allowed to “become as wealthy as [we] are able.” Practically the only sane-sounding result is that a mere 7 percent of Americans place a “high” degree of trust in our federal government.
Are we really as bad as all that, I wonder? I would like to think that the answer is no and that part of the problem is the manner in which these views are solicited. Most of the questions are almost absurdly loaded: not even I believe that people should be able to “smoke whenever and wherever they want,” though I would happily restore tobacco use to bars, restaurants, and maternity wards. Asking someone for a binary answer to questions about the ultimate nature and purpose of wealth, as if most of us did not fall somewhere in the middle of the vast space along the continuum between John D. Rockefeller and Lin Biao, is a mug’s game. So is asking them for their opinions about the value of “local news”: one might as well invite them to give their views about the reliability of their neighborhood carriage-maker.
Still, it is hard to escape the conclusion that something is seriously wrong with a country in which people are apparently more likely to be in favor of abortion or smoking cannabis (regardless of its legal status) than they are of religious exemptions to military service or allowing parents to spank their children if they deem it necessary. The fideistic awe with which we regard scientists, doctors, and the wealthy confirms my worst instincts about what we value in the United States, namely, anything that can be considered useful or practical at the expense of our spiritual and aesthetic instincts. (How much trust do we place in the conductors of symphonies, for example?)
If nothing else, polls like this one should give us pause about the sort of blithe populist rhetoric that has become a commonplace, not least among social conservatives. It ought to be possible to criticize our leaders without lionizing an American public whose views and habits have, after all, been formed by the same rotten culture we affect to despise. It would in fact be a kind of miracle if our ambitions were loftier than the amoral pursuit of wealth and smoking cannabis with our seatbelts on because we trust the experts.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor to The American Conservative.