Reversing the Anomie Trend May Not Be Too Difficult to Achieve

We're seeing a decline in moral norms, and it comes from people being frustrated with not being heard, argues Public Agenda co-founder Dan 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 donít 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 publicís 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 publicís frustration.
  • Elites also tend to define problems in technical terms that the general public doesnít understand, exacerbating the publicís feelings of isolation.
  • Both Democrats and Republicans show a disregard for the publicís voice in shaping policy initiatives.
People are frustrated because they feel they donít have a voice.

My studies of American public opinion and changing values over the past five decades lead me to the conclusion that American concern for the common good has not been destroyed or fatally harmed. It lurks just beneath the surface of todayís extreme individualism. With the right kind of leadership, its potency could be readily renewed.

The best way to reverse the trend toward normlessness is to apply a bigger dose of democracy. When leaders show genuine sincerity in inviting people to participate, the public responds positively. Experience shows that when people are convinced that their point of view will be heard, their cynicism disappears and they readily become engaged.

Rebooting Democracy is a blog authored by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich. While the views that Dan shares in his blog should not be interpreted as representing official Public Agenda positions, the purpose behind the blog and the spirit in which it is presented resonate powerfully with our values and the work that we do. To receive Rebooting Democracy in your inbox, subscribe here.


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