As we approach another Independence Day national birthday, Americans are worried that their country is backsliding. Despite the best economy in most people's memory, a spate of public opinion polling affirms that most voters are deeply concerned about the moral climate and are searching for ways to restore what they see as lost values.
Presidential candidates of all stripes are picking up the same signals and trying to respond as best they can. In almost identical phrases, they lament the weakening of family ties and the erosion of community bonds. They fret particularly about the fear that youngsters, who need clear standards and strong role models, instead are dealing with absentee or overburdened parents and see examples of hypocrisy and misbehavior in high places. Deprived of discipline and, equally, of supportive love, too many of these young people are turning into alienated and sometimes aggressive outcasts -- damaging themselves with drugs and random sex and even turning guns on classmates and teachers.
The anxiety is surely understandable, after the triple blows of a presidential impeachment, an ambiguous war in Kosovo and especially the tragedy of Columbine High School. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who runs the bipartisan Battleground survey with Republican Ed Goeas, remarked last week that there was a reason the Littleton shootings had such a powerful impact. Listening to people in her focus groups, she said, she realized that the community devastated by that violence "didn't look like their home town; it looked better. So it was a profound blow to their aspirations."
From the interviewing I have done, it is perfectly plausible that the Battleground survey found the national mood has darkened. The percentage of likely voters saying the country is on the wrong track has grown from 46 percent to 51 percent since last August while the share saying things are moving in the right direction has declined from 43 percent to 36 percent. Instead of optimism and pessimism being essentially balanced, anxiety now has a 15-point edge. The optimists mainly cite the economy; the worriers, values questions.
Littleton may have been the biggest factor, Lake and Goeas said, but Kosovo -- a war marked by horrendous atrocities and heartbreaking civilian casualties -- also played a part. It was no surprise to them that President Clinton received no boost from his successful leadership of the NATO effort.
And Clinton -- despite his demurrals at his marathon press conference last Friday -- also contributed to the national distemper by his misbehavior with Monica Lewinsky and his long, futile effort to lie his way out of the scandal. The Battleground survey found 67 percent personal disapproval of Clinton, and Goeas said the damage Republicans suffered last winter, when they were pushing to remove Clinton, has been converted into a big advantage for the GOP over the Democrats on questions of personal responsibility and ethics. Reinforcing this remarkable turnaround, his Democratic partner, Lake, said the Clinton scandals have had "a time-release effect . . . and Democrats have paid a big price."
But another respected pair of pollsters, Republican Robert Teeter and Democrat Peter Hart, in a survey released last week by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, cautioned the GOP against smugness in the values debate.
On many of the specific social issues, voters are closer to the Democratic position, Hart and Teeter said, than to the GOP. That is emphatically the case on gun control, where a 3-2 majority favor measures even stronger than those defeated in the House two weeks ago. Democrats are also preferred on the issues of abortion and gay rights, while the GOP holds the edge on school prayer.
But the Hart-Teeter poll also reflected public doubts that the federal government could or would do much about the cultural forces that most concern voters. Seven out of 10 respondents said families are the institution most likely to cope with these pressures; only 4 percent said government.
It reminded me of a conversation more than 30 years ago with Harry McPherson, a wise Washington lawyer, then on Lyndon Johnson's White House staff. I asked him about the criticism that the "War on Poverty" was not getting at the fundamental social dysfunction that trapped families in blighted neighborhoods. Employing a single-word definition from sociology literature for "a breakdown or absence of social norms and values," McPherson replied, "If you think it's hard to eliminate poverty, just try getting rid of anomie."
Anomie is no longer just a slum problem. And ridding society of it remains a daunting task for any government.