The New Political Landscape: Improve Ethics, Performance

Article excerpt

THE Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press recently released a major study of changes in Americans' political outlook called "The New Political Landscape." Drawing on a huge survey conducted this past summer and previous work reaching back into the 1980s, the report is the most comprehensive survey-based account in recent years.

Like other contemporary surveys, the Times Mirror study finds Americans sour on government, especially on Washington. Such negative judgments have been intensifying. Asked whether most elected officials care what people like themselves think, just 33 percent said they do, compared with 47 percent in a 1987 Times Mirror poll. The proportion disagreeing that the government is really run for the benefit of all the people climbed from 39 percent seven years ago to 57 percent this summer.

Similarly, the new survey documents a sharp spike in anti-incumbent sentiment - up from the fairly high base of the past quarter-century. Seven years ago, 62 percent agreed that it was time for Washington politicians to make room for new leaders; by this summer, the proportion had climbed to 79 percent. The segment saying they completely or strongly agreed jumped from 16 percent to 34 percent. Seven years ago, 44 percent of Times Mirror respondents said new people are needed in Washington even if they are not effective as experienced politicians. This past summer 60 percent opted for change over experience.

There's a tendency to assume that this dissatisfaction with politics is part of a more general unrest - some loss of confidence in central American institutions and values and hence in the future. The Times Mirror report shows otherwise.

We often read that Americans have become much more pessimistic about the capacity of the system to achieve in the future as it has in the past. But 68 percent of respondents agreed that Americans can always find a way to solve problems; only 30 percent disagreed. Similarly, 61 percent rejected the proposition that there are any real limits to growth in the future.

The study showed the public strongly committed to traditional American values and aspirations. Asked which proposition best reflects their own point of view - that most people can get ahead if they're willing to work hard, or that for most people hard work and determination are no guarantor of success - 68 percent expressed confidence in the efficacy of individual effort. By 8 to 1, respondents said they admired people who get rich by working hard. The idea that the strength of the country rests significantly on the success of American business was endorsed by a 4 to 1 margin. …