We're bitter, frustrated, cynical and selfish, poll finds

September 21, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Americans are in an ugly mood, and that's a dangerous fact for politicians and others dependent on the kindness of strangers.

That's the bleak conclusion of a major new poll by the Times Mirror Center assessing the national political climate.

The survey paints a picture of an America that has become an increasingly bitter, frustrated, cynical and selfish place over the last seven years.

And it portrays a public ever more distrustful and hopeless about its government.

"This is an electorate that is angry, self-absorbed and unanchored politically," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center.

Among the grim details:

* White Americans are increasingly indifferent toward the problems of blacks and members of other minority groups and resentful toward immigrants.

* Fewer Americans think government should take care of needy people.

* Public disgust with Washington is significantly worse than in 1992. More voters want traditional politicians replaced with a fresh, new batch. And a third party is looking better all the time.

* More than 70 percent of Americans think that the media, especially TV news shows, hurt the country more than they help.

The poll's analysts concluded that the Clinton administration's agenda of change and the economic recovery have failed to reverse an overwhelming political cynicism in the country.

The poll, whose error rate is plus or minus 2 to 3 percentage

points, found that only 33 percent of the public thinks that elected officials care about their beliefs. That is down from 36 percent in 1992 and 47 percent in 1987, when Times Mirror -- publisher of The Sun and The Evening Sun -- began its studies of public opinion.

Only 42 percent now believe that government is run for the

benefit of all people, compared with 57 percent in 1987.

This widespread estrangement has given increasing strength to an already widespread political attitude -- outsiderism, the view that new leaders are better than the old ones and that political experience is more a handicap than a help. Today, two-thirds of Americans said Washington needs new leaders, even if they are not as experienced, compared to 44 percent in 1987.

Most Americans also feel contempt for the federal bureaucracy. Nearly 70 percent said dealing with a federal agency is not worth the trouble, compared with 58 percent seven years ago.

Yet, Americans seem galvanized by their disenchantment. They express a greater interest and willingness to participate in politics, according to the Times Mirror survey. Sixty-six percent said they "completely agree" it is their duty to always vote, compared with 46 percent in 1987.

At the same time, the disaffected electorate also feels less charitable toward the less fortunate. In the poll, 57 percent of Americans said they had a responsibility to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves, down from 69 percent in 1992 and 71 percent in 1987.

Only 41 percent of the public said government should help the needy even if it means going deeper into debt, marking the first time that such an idea has not received majority support in the Times Mirror studies. In both 1987 and 1992, 53 percent thought government had such an obligation.

"The old health care reform debate got people's conservative juices flowing," Mr. Kohut said. "They realized more clearly than before that debate that the cost will come out of their pockets. Bill Clinton didn't do a good job of selling the bitter pill of social change."

At the same time, the poll found white America less concerned about the position of blacks.

Two years ago, after the Rodney King trial and riots in Los Angeles, more than half the whites surveyed said there had not been much improvement for blacks nationally.

But today, whites are less apt to express concern for blacks. Only 44 percent said there has been no real improvement for blacks.

By contrast, 73 percent of blacks said they have seen no real improvement in their position.

For the first time, a majority of whites -- 51 percent -- say that equal rights have been pushed too far in the United States, compared with 42 percent in 1992. Oddly, even some black poll subjects feel that way -- one out of four said equal rights have been pushed too far.

The poll also reflects more hostility toward immigrants. Eighty-two percent of Americans favor greater control over people moving into the United States to live, compared to 76 percent in 1992.

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