A House Divided? Reflections on the Public’s Mood


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This report by John Doble and Jean Johnson, both senior associates of the Kettering Foundation with extensive experience studying public opinion, tries to make sense of what is going on in the United States in the aftermath of the 2016 election. It is based on qualitative research, including interviews and focus groups, which were held in Middletown, Delaware, and Cincinnati, Dallas, and Los Angeles. The authors took what has come to be considered the “conventional wisdom” about how Americans feel about their country—its problems, the government and their relationship to it, and their own future—and compared it to what they heard in the focus groups. The results were surprising. For example, pundits said that people had voted their pocketbooks and that they were worried about their own prospects or those of their children. But in the focus groups, people said that they are pretty happy with their personal economic prospects and security. Another piece of conventional wisdom: people are fed up with bureaucrats and think that government workers are lazy and incompetent. But in focus groups, people said most government employees work hard and care about the public interest; it is the elected officials, especially Congress, with whom they are dissatisfied.

The authors found that people are deeply troubled by the divisions in our country. The observation that these political divisions have seeped into people’s personal lives in cities and towns across the country is perhaps the most important hypothesis emerging from this research. They heard this concern from people from all backgrounds and points of view, and in all parts of the country. People expressed this idea with a sense of unease and loss, perhaps fearing that some of the bonds of unity and shared purpose can no longer be assumed or ever reclaimed. But, while people may not know what to do about the divisions they see and feel, the participants in the focus groups repeatedly said it was refreshing and confidence-building to talk civilly with people they did not agree with. “We need more of this,” said a young electrician from Delaware, after the group discussion there. “A lot more.”

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