The Psychology Behind Political Debate

How politicians use psychology, and what it means for democracy.

Why Are Americans In Such a Bad Mood?

Satisfaction with the nation's direction continues to fall

A recent Gallup poll found that only 11 percent of Americans are satisfied with direction of the United States. This overall dismal perspective on the direction of the nation is among the lowest ever recorded by Gallup since they started measuring the nation's mood in 1979.

Why are Americans in such a bad mood?

There are obvious short-term reasons, and topping that list is the nation's economy. With anemic economic growth, sluggish job creation, and prices seemingly on the rise, most Americans are concerned about the economy and their own financial well-being. And many are feeling even less financially secure, watching the gut-wrenching volatility in the financial markets, which has implications for the retirement incomes of many.

Our nation's political leaders seem unwilling or unable to help the situation. The recent haggling over the federal debt limit, and debates about the budget deficit are also no doubt leading many Americans to have concerns about the direction of the nation --- in particular whether our political leaders have the capabilities to deal with the nation's sagging economy. The partisan and ideological strife between President Obama and Republican leaders like John Boehner seems to be playing out daily in the press, and Americans may be tired of the arguing and bickering.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

These same political problems are playing themselves out in many states as well. Here in California, political leaders managed to patch together a state budget, though not without partisan bickering (and it is still not clear whether the patched-up budget pass in California will survive continued anemic economic growth in the state). Similar fights have occurred in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. So Americans are also worried about how things are going to work out in their towns, cities and states.

But the dismal mood of Americans is not just the result of these recent events. What is fascinating about the Gallup data on the nation's direction is that we can look at how it has fluctuated since 1979, and that analysis is quite revealing.

American satisfaction with the nation's direction was generally very positive between 1999 and 2001, with perhaps around 60 percent of Americans during those few years satisfied with the nation's direction. Those were also uncertain times, with a contested presidential election in 2000 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001. But despite that uncertainty, many Americans seemed satisfied with the nation's direction.

Yet since then, the satisfaction index fell, steadily and continually, until late in 2008. In the October 10-12, 2008 Gallup poll, taken during the financial collapse of 2008, only 7 percent of Americans were satisfied with the nation's direction. After it became clear that strong action by governments around the world would mitigate the financial problems, national satisfaction moved upward for a brief period, but by 2010 it was sliding back down towards single digits again.

So the big picture is that the bad mood of Americans has been worsening for the past decade -- with a slow slide beginning in 2002 and continuing today. That means that the root causes of this bad mood are deeper than the current recession and partisan political fighting, as the decline began before the recent recession and before Obama was elected president. Many things happened during this time, including bitterly contested federal elections, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the hunt for those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and so on. Only with much more careful research will we eventually be able to better point to the causes of the development of such deep dissatisfaction with America's direction.

The implications of the long-term development of this negative mood are profound. First, it is unlikely that such deep dissatisfaction can be quickly and easily reversed; the myraid of factors that have lead to such low levels of satisfaction are unlikely to be fixed quickly. This means that we will likely see satisfaction stabilize at a very low level for some time -- or even that it might drop further, below the historic low of 7 percent seen in late 2008. 

Second, this bad mood has economic implications. As long as this bad mood persists, many Americans are going to be unable or unwilling to buy big-ticket items, like homes and cars, due to the uncertainty they have about the economy. Without strong consumer spending, businesses will not expand, meaning that unemployment and anemic economic growth might be with us longer than predicted. 

And third, a sour mood makes for uncertain politicsAs the Gallup report of their recent poll notes, "Low national satisfaction ratings make incumbent politicans vulnerable to defeat, and Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were defeated for re-election at times when Americans were largely dissatified with the state of the nation." Reversing these concerns about the direction of the nation will be key questions for political strategists of both parties, and we no doubt will hear much more about the bad mood of Americans as we get closer and closer to the 2012 elections.

R. Michael Alvarez, Ph.D., is a Professor of Political Science at the California Institute of Technology.

more...

Subscribe to The Psychology Behind Political Debate

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.