Manufacturing an alien nation
[ opinion - november 07 ]
Dictionary definitions of "alienation" vary, of course. A quick visit to an online dictionary finds commentary ranging from the psychological ("alienation, the state of being withdrawn or isolated from the objective world, as through indifference or disaffection") to the philosophical ("a state of estrangement between the self and the objective world or between different parts of the personality"), the political ("Marxism holds that workers in capitalist nations are alienated because they have no claim to ownership of the products they make" and "alienation is most often associated with minorities, the poor, the unemployed, and other groups who have limited power to bring about changes in society") to the sociological ("in social science, alienation is associated with the problems caused by rapid social change, such as industrialization and urbanization, which has broken down traditional relationships among individuals and groups and the goods and services they produce" and then this: "A withdrawing or separation of a person or a person's affections from an object or position of former attachment, as from the values of one's society and family.") 
Any these definitions certainly apply to alienation polling from Harris, which has for more than 40 years asked a sampling of Americans five questions to measure how alienated we feel "from society and those with political and economical power." The most recent poll produced a "Harris Alienation Index" of 56 (the more alienated we feel, the higher the index), "the highest level of alienation during the presidency of George W Bush." 
This finding dovetails with negative polling covering the administration, its performance, its war management, its reaction to domestic disasters and the current economy; but what's surprising is that the Harris Alienation Index hasn't changed direction since it first tracked significantly upward alienation trends during the Nixon administration in 1972-3. The alienation index actually peaked in the late Bush I to early Clinton administrations in the early 1990s, and reached a post-Vietnam War era low following 9/11 in 2001. Alienation has since trended upward again to the current high of 56. In other words, Americans have felt relatively and seriously alienated from society and those with political and economical power, since about 1974.
Not surprisingly, if we look at voter turnout (as a percentage of voting age population) over that same timeframe, we find a mirror trend, from a high voter turnout of 63.1% in 1960, through a low of 49% in 1996, to a current turnout of about 55% in 2004. (Off year national elections have also trended downwards, with about 10% less voter turnout over the same period, from 47% in 1962 to current a 37%.) 
So what do these trends tell us? First of all, over the life of the Harris poll we find Americans began seriously disconnecting "from society and those with political and economical power" at about the same time they realized that President Richard M Nixon, elected to his second term, and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger were not going to end the war in Vietnam. Americans have turned out to vote in fewer numbers ever since. So if our national cynicism began then, it has never returned to anything near the historic optimism (a historic low alienation index of 29), which Harris found during the Johnson administration, in 1966. Apparently an alienation faultline opened at that point in American history, and in a very real political sense, Americans have not looked back since.
Secondly, we can be certain most Americans are overwhelmingly alienated on two specific issues: "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer," and "the people in Washington are out of touch with the rest of us", two questions which consistently triggered the highest alienated response (around 75) over the decades, indicating that we view ourselves as most alienated from society and power elites in both economical and political terms. Scholar and critic Noam Chomsky might see these generational trends as reflections of what he calls, "democracy deficit," that is the gap between government interests and its failure to respond to known public interests, which he argues ultimately deprives democratic institutions of any real substance.
If we look at Americans polled by Harris demographically over time, however, we find the alienation index shifts somewhat, more along lines of, "haves," "have nots" and "have mores." Over time, women poll consistently more alienated than men, for example, while African Americans poll more alienated than either Whites or Hispanics. And, generally, over time, the lower the educational level, the higher the belief or feeling of alienation. Also by political party, tracked by Harris polling since 1997, Democrats and Independents are more likely to "believe or feel" alienated, than are Republicans. Nonetheless, even Republicans have become increasingly alienated, with their alienation index rising from 34 in 2003, to a current high of 46 as of last month. Politically, Harris concludes: "The situation may actually be somewhat worse for the president when one considers the trends for some individual questions. Specifically:
&emdash; Those who believe that "the people running the country don't really care what happens to you" have increased six points since last year, from 53 per cent to 59 per cent;
&emdash; Those who believe that "most people with power try to take advantage of people like you" have risen three points from 54 per cent last year to 57 per cent;
&emdash; Those who believe that "the people in Washington are out of touch with the rest of the country" have increased seven points, from 68 per cent last year to 75 per cent this year.
However, when viewing alienation trends over eight presidencies, the current situation is not all that unusual. Despite the current unpopularity of President George W Bush, and the widening financial gulf between the very rich and the middle class, the level of alienation is currently lower than it was in six of the eight years when President Bill Clinton was in the White House. It's clear, that over time, the level of alienation runs deeper in the public perception than the mere popularity of incumbent presidents:
* Under George W Bush, the Alienation Index has averaged 53
* Under Bill Clinton, it averaged 62
* Under George HW Bush, it averaged 62
* Under Ronald Reagan, it averaged 57
* Under Jimmy Carter, it averaged 55
* Under Gerald Ford, 57. – Harris
Which means other factors, such as Bush I and Clinton administration reactions to the collapse of the Soviet Union, divergent war or economic or taxation policies, perhaps even ageing generations and millennium optimism, may spike momentary optimism in an American public which has come to view itself as otherwise permanently alienated. A situation that calls out for leadership to change a social context that does not bode well for the future of American democracy.
The Current State of Alienation
In this new survey, the Index was computed by averaging the per centages of adults who now agree with the five questions:
* 73 per cent believe that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer";
* 59 per cent that "the people running the country don't really care what happens to you";
* 57 per cent that "most people with power try to take advantage of people like you" ;
* 55 per cent feel that "what you think doesn't count very much any more" ;
* 36 per cent feel that "you're left out of things going on around you" .[Back]
2 November 8, 2007: Harris Poll's "Alienation Index" Rises Slightly to Highest Level in Bush Presidency [Back]
3 National Voter Turnout in Federal Elections: 1960-2004 [Back]