Behind anger is a call for change

Posted: Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I listen to America - in focus groups, telephone interviews, town halls and polls in all 50 states - for a living. It used to be fun. Now it's become painful.

For 15 years, average Americans have exuded optimism and energy, whether they were talking about their political preferences, their employment aspirations or simply what they had for breakfast.

But that was before the economic meltdown one year ago. What a difference a year makes.

Today, Americans are boiling mad, and the elites from Washington to Wall Street to West Hollywood don't get it. It can best be summarized by 12 short words bellowed by Howard Beale, the deranged TV anchor in the movie "Network": "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."

The frightening reality is that where there was hope, now there is cynicism. Where there were dreams, now there is disillusion. Instead of courage and resolve, I hear blame and finger-pointing.

According to my research, 72 percent of Americans agree with Howard Beale - they really are "mad as hell." Second, 57 percent now believe that their children will inherit a worse America than they did, and just 33 percent believe their children will have a better quality of life than they have.

This wasn't just any single poll. My research includes interviews with 6,400 people from December 2008 through April 2009 that allow me to analyze opinions by gender, age, ethnicity, partisanship and more. It is buttressed by two dozen "instant response" groups of 30 voters in almost a dozen states over the last 100 days. No matter how I slice and dice the results, we're a very unhappy people.

In my estimation, that intense despair and loss of confidence exactly reflect what we're seeing and hearing in health care town halls. The media focus on the shouting and the extremist slogans and miss the point: a once-optimistic people now filled with rancor and vitriol.

And why not? Americans in the unhappy majority are struggling to keep their jobs as million-dollar bonuses are being awarded at companies their tax dollars bailed out. They're watching Congress showcase the partisan spectacle we now blithely confuse with "government." They have learned (with good reason) to distrust their leaders, their institutions and even their own positive values in a culture that has turned coarse and critical.

The elites under attack complain that rowdy town halls are bad for civic discourse and democracy. But I contend that their empty dismissals of grass-roots anger are much more dangerous.

If you talk in depth to self-described angry Americans - as I have - you don't hear raving demands or reckless hate. What you hear is fear.

But you also hear a belief in American values that many thought were lost. An incredible 88 percent believe in the adage "live free or die." Conversely, just 35 percent agree with the statement "I want it all, and I want it now," and a slight majority (54 percent) believe "if it feels good, do it." It's nice to know that freedom beats obtaining more stuff. And when asked to choose from a list of social and cultural challenges facing America, the highest priority is "restoring personal responsibility." (Even in these toughest of economic times, most Americans are asking only for a hand up, not a handout.)

I even spot some green shoots of renewed optimism. First, the town halls themselves, despite their negative tone, are a sign of a healthy desire to engage in political and social discourse. Americans are putting some of the "self" back in self-governance. Competing ideals are actually competing.

The core American complaint about politics is that wrongdoing isn't punished, other than at the next election. From scandalous personal behavior to bailouts of everyone and everything except the hard-working middle class, Washington is seen as the source for America's mistakes. Enforcing rules and letting failures fail would stop the excesses today and prevent the mistakes of tomorrow.

Such accountability in business would likewise prevent executives at imploding companies from walking away with millions while their employees get skunked. I have done "employee satisfaction" research for two decades, and I have never seen a gulf this wide: Employers resent the lack of loyalty and commitment from their people; employees resent the lack of job security and the need to work longer and harder for less.

For business and political elites, the message should be clear: Restore trust. Politicians should be hosting more town hall meetings, even if it means encountering surly voters. Business leaders should be seeking input from their hard-pressed customers and workers, and they should stop paying themselves huge bonuses while everyone else suffers.If those in power shut up and listen, they'll hear what I'm hearing. It's time to heed the anger and reinforce the positive values behind it.

• Frank Luntz advises Fortune 500 clients.



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