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    What America Thinks
    The Most Cynical Voters

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, January 25, 1999

    If you think Americans hate their government and their politicians, think again. And think Japan. That's because the Japanese positively loathe their elected leaders, think the people who manage their country's political affairs are crooks and express little trust in the Japanese parliament, according to surveys conducted by Louis Harris and Associates in the United States, Japan and Great Britain.

    The British, too, are decidedly less trusting than Americans about the men and women who represent them, though they are far less likely than the Japanese to view their country's political leaders as outright crooks.

    Then again, it would be difficult to be more cynical than the Japanese, who in recent years have faced the twin terrors of political corruption scandals and economic recession.

    Three in four – 75 percent – of all Japanese respondents agreed that "there are many dishonest people who manage our national politics," a view shared by only 30 percent of all Americans and 32 percent of British respondents.

    Americans expressed more trust in the elected officials who represent them. Nearly eight in 10 Americans – 77 percent – said they had at least "some" trust in their elected representatives in Congress. In Britain, 56 percent had similar levels of trust in their representative in Parliament, while barely half – 53 percent – of all Japanese interviewed said they trusted their representative in the national parliament, the Diet.

    "When it comes to the Congress or Parliament as a whole, Americans are again somewhat more trusting, but the differences are smaller," reported Humphrey Taylor, chairman of Louis Harris and Associates. Most Americans said they trusted the Congress as a whole either a "great deal" (6 percent) or "some" (60 percent), Taylor said. But in Great Britain, 56 percent expressed at least some trust in Parliament, while barely a third – 35 percent – of the Japanese trusted the Diet.

    Even more ominously, the Harris poll found deep cynicism among the Japanese that extended to their views on voting. More than six in 10 Americans believe "their vote counts for much," an attitude shared by 56 percent of all British respondents but only 40 percent of the Japanese.

    Other questions highlighted the substantial differences that exist in the way democracy is viewed and practiced in these three countries.

    Character counts in America and Japan, but not necessarily in Great Britain, the surveys show. Three in four Americans and six in 10 Japanese say character is more important than political party when voting for elected representatives. Equally lopsided majorities of Britons expressed the opposite view: Two in three say a candidate's party and not his or her character is more important.

    Most Americans and the British say their elected representatives "should give the highest priority to the local interests of the people they represent rather than the national interest," Harris analysts wrote. In Japan, three in four – 77 percent – believe the opposite, "that members of the parliament should put national interest before the local interest of their constituents."

    But voters in all three countries know what makes for a real political scandal, and it isn't adultery. Bribery topped the list of political sins in all three countries, with 64 percent of the Japanese, 58 percent of Americans and 49 percent of the British samples saying it "raises the most serious question about the ethics of the politician involved." Next on the list of no-nos: lying (29 percent in the U.S., 32 percent in Japan and 37 percent in Great Britain). Extramarital sex and excessive drinking didn't break into double digits in any country.

    Taylor says those results also "throw some light on why President Clinton is still so popular even after he has been impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice. Many people here may believe that Clinton is guilty of lying and extramarital sex but less guilty than many members of Congress of selling his vote to those who finance their political campaigns."

    Out With Flynt

    Most Americans think it's creepy that Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt is poking around in the private lives of Republicans in Congress, according to a new Washington Post survey completed last week. By a 57 percent to 40 percent majority, the public disapproved of Flynt's attempts to pay back GOPers for their investigation of President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

    The pornographer's probe isn't particularly popular with Democrats: Only half – 51 percent – of those Democrats interviewed approved of Flynt's investigation, a sentiment shared by 22 percent of all Republicans and 42 percent of political independents interviewed.

    The country was more divided over whether news organizations should report the names of straying Republican members of Congress caught by Flynt: 52 percent said they should not, while 46 percent (including 56 percent of all Democrats interviewed) said the media should print the names.

    Name Recognition

    Speaking of America's pornographer in chief, here's a dismaying finding from the latest survey conducted by Andrew Kohut and the Pew Center for People & the Press. Twelve percent of those interviewed knew that Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist was presiding over Clinton's impeachment trial in the Senate. But more than three times as many – 42 percent – correctly named Flynt as the magazine publisher "who has offered money to encourage people to come forward with information about sexual affairs with members of Congress."

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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