Who Knows the American Mind?

Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States: Data from the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family Growth

National Health Statistics Reports
Number 36, March 3, 2011, 36 pp.; available at www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr036.pdf

The Pollsters: Public Opinion, Politics, and Democratic Leadership

by Lindsay Rogers
Knopf, 239 pp., 1949 (out of print)
Magnum Photos
Open Door Mission, Rochester, New York, 2012; photograph by Alex Webb from Memory City, his new book with Rebecca Norris Webb, published by Radius


Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center argues that surveys of public opinion are both necessary for democracy and based on equality. His The Next America opens:

Opinion surveys allow the public to speak for itself. Each person has an equal chance to be heard. Each opinion is given an equal weight.

This view has long been held in the survey industry, going back to the early days of George Gallup, who called polls “the pulse of democracy.”1 Some recent books on surveys show how they can help us understand American society, so long as we are aware of their limitations. For example, Taylor tells us he found that 39 percent of Americans agree that “marriage is becoming obsolete.” But are we hearing “the public…speak for itself”? Certainly many people have changing views about the state of marriage but it’s hard to believe that so many were calling it “obsolete” before an interviewer introduced the word.

Still, many of the Pew Center’s findings shed light on where the country is moving. Thus Taylor reports that support for legalizing marijuana has gone from 12 percent in 1969 to 52 percent in 2013. We also learn that even among people in their fifties and sixties, only 50 percent still feel that the United States is “the greatest country in the world.” In 2012, Pew put the following question to 3,008 adults: “Would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful when dealing with people?” Of those responding, trust gets only 37 percent, with 59 percent counseling vigilance. (I’m still musing about what my own choice would be.) So it remains to consider how public views on marriage and marijuana meld with those on personal trust and national eclipse. The Next America works best as a sourcebook, leaving it to others to put the pieces together and try to understand the cause of changes in opinion.

Occasionally, Taylor missteps. For instance, he says that, since 1980, the divorce rate has been declining. That’s true by official tallies. But since they stay single longer, most people now have intimate interludes and then breakups that resemble what were formerly divorces. Apparently something is being learned from such experiences: recorded marriages are becoming more stable.

Taylor’s summary chapter barely mentions surveys. He titles it “The Reckoning,” by which he means confronting the costs of an aging population. In his view, strict limits must be set on medical treatment for the elderly. To further tax an already “hard-pressed young” can only undermine the nation’s “economic vitality.” In turn, older people shouldn’t expect more to be spent on them as their time arrives. Even now, we have $1,000 pills, courtesy of a…

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