Public Agenda
Rebooting Democracy

09.30 An Anti-Social Willfulness

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

We should expect a deluge of theories about what has gone wrong with American life and why the public is growing ever more distressed. The only reason we haven't heard many of these theories yet is the widespread expectation that economic recovery will cure whatever ails us, including the public’s current dark mood.

Regardless of the direction our economy takes, however, I believe we can no longer ignore how dysfunctional our institutions are becoming. These include our political, economic, health care, criminal justice and education systems. None are functioning as well as they can and should.

Exactly what has gone wrong? The answer points to our national psychology and culture rather than to our economics or politics. Our exuberant embrace of individualism has inadvertently brought to the surface several negative trends.


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09.23 This Public Funk Will Be Hard to Dispel

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

The public is in a bad funk. This is, of course, not the first time the public mood has turned negative in recent years. Whether one calls it “malaise,” “unwinding,” “off balance,” “wrong track” or some other term connoting a public mood of pessimism, such states of mind are bound to occur whenever our economies and politics are volatile, as they inevitably are from time to time. These moods do no lasting harm as long as they eventually dissipate and the nation returns to its traditional optimistic outlook.


Madeleine Holland | Flickr

I am worried about this particular funk because I see no signs of it lifting, and some troubling signs that it might even grow worse. Despite a slowly improving economy, a recent Wall Street Journal poll shows that Americans are very anxious about the state of the nation and gloomy about prospects for the future -- a state of mind that has deepened over the past few years.

The poll shows that more than seven out of ten Americans:

  • Lack confidence that their children will have a better life than they have had (76%).
  • Express deep concern with how our political system is failing us (79%).
  • Blame our problems on the inability of our elected officials to take effective action (71%).
  • Believe the country is on the wrong track (71%).

These levels of public distress are extraordinarily high. When pessimism exceeds a two-thirds majority it should be seen as a tipping point. Beyond this point, the country’s political mood becomes volatile and unstable.


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09.16 A Two-Pronged Strategy

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

Is it possible to transform public opinion from its current state of mistrust, frustration and lack of confidence in our institutions – a mood of being turned off and disengaged – to one of being turned on and fully engaged? If so, what would it take? How long would it take? What are the most promising strategies? And what is the likelihood of success or failure?

Based on extensive research, I am convinced that Americans yearn to have the public voice exert more influence than it does currently. A critical mass of Americans deeply desires to be invited to engage more actively in shaping the public policies that bear on their lives.

Despite this hopeful sign, however, it would be a mistake to assume that the transformation can be quick or easy. It will take a great deal of intelligent effort and leadership to transform the public mood from one that is disengaged to one that is fully engaged – from mistrust to trust, from sounding off and venting frustration to thoughtful deliberation and willingness to compromise.


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09.08 Findings from Dialogue Group Research

Monday, September 8th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

Dialogue research follows strict rules. Participants are encouraged to:

  • listen rather than to argue;
  • suspend judgment rather than debate;
  • dig behind their surface opinions in order to explore their own tacit assumptions;
  • engage other dialogue participants to help uncover likely consequences of the strong emotional positions that people take on controversial issues.

The general findings from a variety of these dialogues are quite revealing and consistent across dialogue subjects.

One-day dialogues do not lead to consensus. At the end of a day of difficult dialogue, widespread disagreements persist. Yet, people’s positions do evolve to some degree, and there is almost always some narrowing of differences. For example, on dialogues about illegal immigration, strong opponents of legalization usually soften their opposition as they wrestle with traditional American pride in being a nation of immigrants.

Far more dramatic is the attitude change toward dialogue participants who hold opposing points of view. Almost always, a shift occurs from hostility and contempt to friendliness and cordiality. After a dialogue on abortion, for example, it is not unusual to see pro-choice and pro-life opponents walking out of the room engaged in cordial conversation.


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09.02 A Fateful Trend or a Transient Mood?

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

Our democracy is betraying ever-stronger symptoms of stress. Congress is too polarized to take action on urgent problems. The President reels from one crisis to another with sagging levels of public approval. The business community seems blind to everything except its own profitability. Doctors, lawyers, colleges and universities thrive in their own isolated silos, often pursuing their own agendas at the expense of the larger society.

How serious is the widespread sense of our society unraveling?

Does it foretell a trend likely to grow even worse? Or is it a transient mood that will dissipate as our economy improves? Is it deep and profound, or is it superficial and subject to change when circumstances change? What would make it change for the better?

In the quest for answers, I want to share with you some results of extensive research I’ve conducted with the public over the past few decades. The research findings shed light on a number of these questions. They lead me to adopt a cautious optimism. They create reasonable grounds for hope for our future.

In recent decades I have conducted a new in-depth form of research called dialogic research. It seeks to engage small samples of the public in dialogue with one another. It differs markedly from the more familiar forms of public research such as public opinion polls, individual interviews and focus groups.


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08.26 The Need for Strong Public Engagement

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

Economic inequality and blocked social mobility are so closely linked they are often confused with one another. But they are two quite different problems.

Economic inequality refers to the widening gaps in income and wealth between the low-middle and high income strata of our society. Social mobility refers to the ease (or difficulty) of moving up the income escalator through one’s own efforts.


Franco Folini | Flickr

Advocates tend to offer one-sided strategies to address the two problems. Those focused on social mobility tend to emphasize redistribution strategies. But advocates of redistribution do not always realize that reducing income inequality may not improve social mobility. Conversely, strategies for easing social mobility may leave income inequality barely touched.

There are also large differences in public support for the two strategies. Strategies for improving social mobility enjoy much broader public support than redistribution strategies.

In our era of specialization, it is important to decide whether the strategy of choice for addressing both problems is economic or political. I agree with the many economists like Nobel winner Joseph Stiglitz who strongly insists that they require political rather than economic remedies.


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08.19 The Most Urgent "Wicked Problem"

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

Wicked problems share these characteristics: there are no quick fixes; they are complex and multi-faceted; conventional methods (legislation, regulation, money, power, technology) don’t – and can’t – solve them; solutions depend on how the problem is framed. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.


Foto_Michel | Flickr

Many of the wicked problems we confront today are familiar:

  • growing income inequality;
  • blocked social mobility;
  • political polarization;
  • climate change;
  • erosion of our social ethics;
  • a health care system spiraling out of control;
  • a prison system that warehouses the mentally ill and stigmatizes huge numbers of young black and Hispanic males;
  • a less democracy-friendly form of capitalism.

Our most urgent wicked problem, I believe, is our blocked system of social mobility. It poses the most immediate and gravest threat to our political stability and it makes all the other problems worse. When people feel trapped, large income inequalities and other frustrations become far less tolerable.


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08.12 How the Public Can Make Our Democracy Work Better

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

Americans must become as adept and engaged as citizens as they are as consumers.

The public must be willing and able to give as much thought as they do to buying a car or a new home to alternative choices on policies relating to the economy, health care, education, the environment and other matters of concern to individuals and the community.


Credit: Marc Wathieu | Flickr
Successful public engagement involves both will and skill, and at present both are lacking.

The public’s task as citizens is to deliberate on the nation’s most important issues and form thoughtful judgments free of bias and wishful thinking.

This is a far call from the present response patterns of the public. In recent years, the American public has almost lost the habit of becoming engaged in the search for solutions to the nation’s most pressing problems. Successful public engagement involves both will and skill, and at present both are lacking.


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08.04 How Our Elites Can Make Our Democracy Work Better

Monday, August 4th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

If we are to dig ourselves out of the hole created by the shift away from democracy-friendly capitalism, our system of democracy must function at its best rather than at its present mediocre level.

What does this mean in practice? For sure it means that our political leaders and elites (as well as the public) must do things differently.


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07.29 The State of Our Democracy Is Weak

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

I fear that the current state of our democracy is not robust enough to prevent the damage a biased-toward-the-rich form of capitalism is bound to wreak on our society.

We are doing reasonably well in observing the external trappings of democracy – voting, the rule of law, divided powers, etc. This is vitally important because it helps us to preserve our freedom and political stability.

Government by the people clearly implies that the people must have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

But we are not doing as well on the substantive side of democracy – the side implicit in Lincoln’s definition of democracy as government of, by and for the people. Government by the people clearly implies that the people must have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.


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07.21 Returning to Democracy-Friendly Capitalism Calls for a New Social Contract

Monday, July 21st, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

If traditional economic policies can get our economy back to healthy growth that benefits average households (the old normal), then we can be optimistic about the future.

I don’t think, however, that we can return to the old normal. The conditions that made the old normal possible – lots of low-skill/well paying manufacturing jobs, strong labor bargaining power, less mechanization of jobs, less demand for higher education skills, unique global competitiveness – no longer exist. Nor have we developed policies to induce the new form of capitalism to benefit average households.


Kheel Center / Flickr

The perceptive political analyst William Galston reluctantly draws the inevitable inferences in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal. He personally favors old-normal economic policies. But he admits that the facts push him “to a more radical conclusion," namely, that “we need a …revised social contract that links compensation to productivity and…new policies to bring it about.” He realizes that there is no going back to the policies that worked in the past.

In the near future, momentous decisions need to be made. Do we accept as the new normal the reality that large numbers of Americans are no longer needed for the private sector job market of the future? If so, what do we do with all these “redundant” people?


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07.14 Reversing the Anomie Trend May Not Be Too Difficult to Achieve

Monday, July 14th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

The recent decline in moral norms is, I believe, relatively superficial. It reflects frustration with the political status quo rather than its outright rejection. People are frustrated because they feel they don’t have a voice.

This is the common pattern we've seen in recent years:

  • Americans demand a greater voice in shaping the decisions that directly affect their lives. This demand is repeatedly unfulfilled.
  • In frustration, the public’s mistrust of our institutions, inattention to important issues, and general cynicism all grow stronger.
  • Elites often seem contemptuous of the views of average Americans. This attitude contributes to the public’s frustration.
  • Elites also tend to define problems in technical terms that the general public doesn’t understand, exacerbating the public’s feelings of isolation.
  • Both Democrats and Republicans show a disregard for the public’s voice in shaping policy initiatives.


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07.08 The Threat of Political Instability

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

Our current form of capitalism undermines America’s core ethic. It has become ridden with obstacles to social mobility. A strong commitment to fairness is essential to our nation’s conception of the common good; a less democracy-friendly capitalism violates the common good in favor of top tier of the income scale.


κύριαsity / flickr
Large inequalities become unfair in people’s minds only when they feel that they themselves are stuck in a rut with no opportunity to improve their lot in life.

Large inequalities of income, by themselves, do not violate America’s sense of fairness. Billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are actually folk heroes. Large inequalities become unfair in people’s minds only when they feel that they themselves are stuck in a rut with no opportunity to improve their lot in life.


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07.01 Harbingers of Change

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

Two recent news items may be harbingers of a massive change in our society. If so, it will be a mostly positive change that reduces inequality and restores greater social mobility. But it may also create upheaval in our institutions of higher education.

One of the news items describes a college-support program for Starbucks employees. Starbucks and Arizona State University have agreed to a partnership whereby Starbucks will pay a big part of the tuition for employees taking online courses for credit toward a college degree.

The other news item concerns Corinthian Colleges, one of the nation’s largest for-profit colleges. Regulators are investigating whether Corinthian’s colleges have been pushing their students into high-cost loans, saddling them with debt while not delivering on their promise of well-paying jobs. Student enrollment is declining sharply and Corinthian, facing bankruptcy, agreed to sell off and shutter its campuses.

Why are these two events harbingers of change?


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06.24 Why Our Moral Norms Are Eroding

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

I fear that the deep trends unwinding social mobility cannot be reversed merely by modest short-term fixes like increasing the minimum wage. Of course we should do as much as possible to ensure that people with full time jobs do not fall below the poverty line. These are necessary but not sufficient actions.

We also need a long-term strategy to restore our economic and moral vitality based on a sound understanding of the deeper forces at work and how to reverse them. The least understood of these deep forces is the one undermining our social and ethical norms.

Increasingly, we equate doing wrong with breaking the law, thereby condoning selfish, irresponsible behavior as long as it is lawful. In my last post, I described this phenomenon as “anomie” -- the state of normlessness.

The causes of this condition of anomie are clear if one knows how to connect the dots.


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06.17 Ethical Blind Spots on Wall Street AND Main Street

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

The Wall Street versus Main Street narrative is popular. It is comforting to believe that greed and putting your own interests ahead of others are confined to Wall Street, while the rest of us are merely innocent, norm-abiding bystanders.

Wall Street’s behavior does feed this perception. The real estate boom preceding the Great Recession of 2007-08 featured an ugly feeding-frenzy devoid of ethics. Some of our most highly esteemed financial institutions developed a massive ethical blind spot that violated our society’s most treasured moral norms.

A closer look, however, shows a more nuanced – and balanced – picture. Yes, the banks had lowered their ethical norms. Yes, they had handed out so-called “liar mortgages” indiscriminately. Yes, the rest of us were fleeced.

But that doesn’t mean that Main Street’s ethical norms remained pristine while Wall Street’s norms deteriorated. The liar mortgages were given to people who blatantly lied about their own financial situation.


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06.10 An Eroding Social Ethos, a Disastrous Confluence

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

Equality of opportunity is shrinking, and there is a growing national consensus that we must reverse this trend. Both political parties, as well as the public at large, share a reasonably sound understanding that distortions in our economy have led to stagnant wages for middle- and lower-income Americans with greater concentrations of wealth at the top.

A global economy that makes it profitable for American companies to export jobs to lower wage nations, technological advances that permit companies to replace workers with machines, high rates of unemployment that rob workers of bargaining power -- these are some of the main economic forces that create the inequality of opportunity eroding our social contract and driving American society into a hole. Now that we understand them, we are likely to move toward remedying the economic problems they create for us.

Unfortunately, we do not yet have an equally sound understanding of the non-economic forces exacerbating these problems. Economies don’t operate in a vacuum; their strengths and weaknesses depend on the larger political and ethical contexts of the society of which they are a part. That is why capitalism is so different in China, Russia, Brazil and Turkey than in the United States and its closest allies.


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06.03 Without Social Mobility, Our Society Doesn't Work

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

Structural changes are making our form of capitalism less democratic. Not surprisingly, these changes are also creating a new wave of populism. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama labeled inequality of opportunities and declining social mobility as America’s "defining challenge of our times", and proclaimed that "we must reverse these trends."

In advance of his speech observers wondered whether he would emphasize the left/liberal remedy of seeking redistribution of incomes or the more moderate/conservative remedy of seeking to improve equality of opportunity.

He unequivocally chose the latter. I think he made the right choice.


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05.28 A Wrong Turn in Our Form of Capitalism

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

What are the forces driving our nation into this deep hole? One is a structural change in our system of capitalism. It is shifting from a form of capitalism friendly to the core principles of democracy to one much less so.

In the decades following WWII, our growing economy was referred to as the “rising tide that raises all boats.” This metaphor captured the democracy-friendly thrust of our economy.

Consumer demand accounts for an astounding 70 percent of our economy. When jobs are plentiful and wages at all levels rise steadily, consumer demand stimulates economic growth. This form of capitalism is profoundly democratic, spreading opportunity throughout the working population.


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05.20 Digging Ourselves Into A Hole

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014 | Daniel Yankelovich

For years now, our nation has been digging itself into a pit of social immobility that threatens the very core of our democracy. Every year we confront:

  • Growing income inequality.
  • Shrinking opportunities for individuals to better themselves and their children.
  • Disproportionate accumulation of wealth in the top income brackets.
  • Slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-8.
  • The failure of our education system in preparing our children to compete successfully in today's global economy.
  • Paralysis in Washington.

Polls show that, by greater than two to one margins (58 percent to 28 percent), Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track. A 70 percent majority use words like "divided", "troubled" and "deteriorating" to describe the state of the nation.


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05.20 Welcome to "Rebooting Democracy"

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014 | Will Friedman, Ph.D.

Today, Public Agenda announces the launch of a new blog. It is called Rebooting Democracy and is authored by our co-founder, Dan Yankelovich.

Dan is not only one of the towering figures in the evolution of public opinion research. He is also a public-spirited and pragmatic intellectual who has devoted his life to thinking through the problems facing America’s democratic experiment and the strategies we might employ to keep it on course. And he does this without partisan rancor or indulgence.


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