As the Seventies end and an epic presidential contest approaches, the curbstone sociologists come forward with five-dollar words to explain the American temperament -- words like narcissism and alienation and malaise.
It all sounds very gloomy for the American spirit, even ominous. But there are other words that describe Americans in a better light -- words like stable, optimistic, faithful. Words like caring, tolerant, moral.
Listen, for example, to a few random citizens describing their own personal hopes and fears for the future, as reported to a Washington Post opinion survey.
Ronnie, a 26-year-old oil field worker from the southwest, a born-again Baptist with a high school education, wants this for himself: "A loving family, a good Christian home and world peace."
Tony, a wealthy young Jewish lawyer in the midwest, single and college-educated, says religion is more important to him than it was to his parents. But work is less important than it was to his father. "1. I want a family. 2. Have a job I enjoy. 3. To have good health."
Todd, a 28-year-old airplane pilot, earning more than $30,000 a year, Catholic and single, hopes for: "happy home life, a good job, friends." He fears: "Miserable life, unsatisfactory job, to be alone."
To be alone -- those are dreadful words to most Americans, expressed repeatedly in this era supposedly dedicated to self. "I'd like to get married or live with someone," said Palma, a 22-year-old black sales clerk. Celia, a 36-year-old auditor, Hispanic and college-educated, wants: "To marry the guy I'm engaged to." Her fear: "Living alone."
These are single people mostly. For parents, the hopes and fears are more likely to focus on children, on the health of family members, on their children's prospects for education and good jobs and happy lives. These sentiments were voiced again and again in The Post survey.
The Post survey, conducted Nov. 1-12, involved telephone interviews with 2,505 persons selected at random nationwide. Theoretically, the margin of error for the figures based on the entire sample is 2 percent.
Vivian, a mother and teacher, a southerner and born-again Christian, expressed her hopes: "I would say the continued health and cohesiveness of my family. A future that is dependable enough where my children would be happy and well and a world of peace." Her fears: "Probably the world is running out of things. No leadership, no oil, et cetera. If it continues it will be much more difficult for my children to have what I have. Also the immorality of our citizens affects the future of everything."
These voices are a sampling of the larger reality about Americans that often gets brushed aside as the day-to-day analysis of public attitudes focuses on the grievances and anxieties that propel American political action. The contradiction between this upbeat portrait and the gloomy one can be explained, in large part, by split vision -- millions of citizens who feel quite bouyant about their own lives and their loved ones are simultaneously pessimistic about the national future, about the political institutions which are supposed to provide leadership, about the global forces which threaten shortage and war.
Major opinion surveys usually focus on the political attitudes -- the alienation and malaise themes -- while The Post survey concentrated more on personal perceptions, the family values and traditional faith which are presumed to be the bedrock of American vitality. These values have changed dramatically over the last generation, and a significant minority of Americans feel uncomfortable with the changes -- the aspirations of women, the open sexuality, the emphasis on leisure as well as work in one's life. The majority, of people, however, are less upset by issues like pornography or homosexuality or marijuana than they were a decade ago.
The American family is changing too, but that should not obscure its stability and permanence in people's lives. For instance, 43 percent of the citizens surveyed by The Post said that the men in their families are taking more responsibility for household work, a clear signal of feminism's impact over the last decade. Meanwhile, most families still eat dinner together today -- 74 percent said their families eat dinner together almost every day of the week.
If men are doing more housework in millions of families, they are also changing their attitudes toward their jobs. Among white males, 42 percent said they gain more satisfaction from leisure than work while 27 percent find more in their work. Black men see it the other way around -- which may partly reflect the fact that white males enjoy much higher incomes and, thus, more money to spend on leisure activities. Among black men, however, 57 percent said their jobs are more meaningful to them than jobs were to their fathers.
If one looks at the broad and stable middle ground of American opinion, the nation looks a lot more contented and optimistic than it does on the margins. The popular political notion that Americans have lost faith in the American Dream -- the idea of upward-and-onward from one generation to the next -- is simply wrong. They haven't. Indeed, that creed is shared so widely in this nation, by rich and poor, white and black, that social critics sometimes dismiss it as too obvious to mention.
The Post survey asked a simple question -- do you feel that you are better off financially than your parents were at the same age. The answer was yes -- resoundingly yes -- with 81 percent of the citizens declaring themselves better off than their parents were. Only 9 percent feel worse off. t
This feeling, even if it is subjective, cuts across every group in the society, every region, the wealthy and the impoverished, white citizens and racial minorities. When the same people are asked if they expect their own children to be better off than themselves, 60 percent answer yes, only 11 percent expect their children to be worse off.
This faith in onward-and-upward is strongest among black Americans -- 81 percent of black men believe their children will rise above them and so do 70 percent of black women.
Professionals and managerial types, people who have already made it to the top, understandably are slightly less convinced that their children are going to climb still higher. But most families who are lower on the wage ladder, even very poor families, believe their children will move upward in economic status.
Americans believe in luck and good breaks and roughly half of white America is willing to concede that black Americans don't have the same fair chances. But most people -- white and black -- do not see their own personal fortunes in terms of bad luck.
Only 6 percent think that "life has been unfair to me," while 85 percent chose this mellow perspective: "All in all, I've had my share of good breaks."
A politician trying to address this audience might well resurrect the winning slogan of Dwight Eisenhower, who in 1952 promised "Peace and Prosperity." The candidates of 1980 could add another phrase: "good health."
The survey suggests that citizens feel most threatened by national and international events beyond their personal control -- war, depression, shortages -- even while they continue to be optimistic about their family's future.
The Post asked half the respondents to express in their own words their hopes and fears for the nation; the other half was asked to express hopes and fears for themselves. The list of concerns came out roughly the same. Financial security in personal terms translates into economy stability for the nation. Healthy, happy lives for the children translates into peace and calm for the nation. The fears are interchangeable too -- nuclear war, oil crisis, economic disaster, too much dependence on foreign nations.
"I hope for peace," said Jody, a 31-year-old teacher in the Northeast, "and a solution to the problems of energy. Unification, understanding and the return of a stronger commitment to the family." He fears: "a depression, future assassinations of political leaders, depletion of food and fuel sources, and dependence on foreign nations."
Martin, a 31-year-old white salesman, a Republican from the northeast, expressed these national goals: "I hope that there is peace and less inflation. Better racial relations between whites and blacks and other minorities. I also hope for no religious prejudice."
Clearly expressed in the survey answers is the survival of living religious faith -- once considered threatened by the secular prosperity of the post-World War II generation. God is very much alive for most Americans of all persuasions -- 73 percent consider themselves "very religious" or "somewhat religious." And 31 percent of the people feel that religion is more important to them than it was to their parents while 28 percent feel it is less important.
The Christians who, like Jimmy Carter, say they have had a "born again" experience and made a personal commitment to Christ represent 44 percent of all Christians in the United States. These people, some of them anyway, hold more conservative attitudes than others but the central point about religious feeling is that, on the whole, it does not translate into political attitudes in predictable ways.
For instance, Teddy Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, does at least as well against Jimmy Carter, a Baptist, among those white Protestants who consider themselves "born again" like the president as he does among white Protestants who are not "born again."
The "very religious" Americans, about 24 percent of the adult population, tend toward more traditional social attitudes but, in general, the middle ground of public opinion is more tolerant today on social issues -- liberalized divorce laws, unmarried men and women living together, homosexuality, among others.
The Post survey identifies three distinct groups on these social questions and others. One group, which might be described as "traditionalists," opposes virtually all of the controversial changes and represents about 17 percent of the electorate. Another group of about the same size, which might be called "progressives," favors change on these issues -- relaxing laws against marijuana or pornography, liberalizing social behavior in other areas. The large middle group, about 63 percent, expresses mixed opinions depending on specific issues, but has moved toward the "progressive" side of the spectrum in the last decade.