our own communities and with our neighbors. It is the combination of a "rhetoric of individualism" and a "culture of cynicism" that has moved us from "Oh, I hope he is not hurt! What would his children do without him?" to "I hope he isn't hurt. He might sue." Elshtain describes this cynical community:
In America today, fearful people rush to arm themselves, believing safety to be a matter of aggressive self-help. Angry people want all the politicians to be kicked out of office, but they believe new ones will be no better. Anxious people fear that their neighbors' children may get some unfair advantage over their own. . . . Careless people ignore their children and then blast the teachers and social workers who must tend to the mess they have made, screaming all the while that folks ought to "mind their own business." 62
There appears to be no simple cure for public cynicism. Deal making and compromise, essential components of our political system since its founding, are now dismissed as self-serving political ploys used by professional politicians to advance their personal goals. The public, now with access to more information than ever before, has become more disillusioned than ever before about the leaders who represent them. The human fallibility of many leaders has become plain for all to see. The question remains: In the absence of flawless philosopher-kings, how much imperfection will the public tolerate?
In this chapter, we have reviewed some of the long-term trends that have interested public opinion researchers from some of the theoretical perspectives we have outlined in this book. The fit between theory and data is sometimes imprecise. However, in order to understand public opinion, it is not enough to simply describe the trends we see. We must delve deeper and attempt to understand the cultural, social, and psychological forces that generate changes in public opinion. We must be able to connect the changes in public opinion to the social outcomes they produce.
The tools that we use to measure public opinion are imprecise. Surveys are subject to a variety of measurement errors, many of which we discussed in Chapter 3. Equally important, they may suffer from more subtle problems over the long term. Changes in social norms and in social contexts may affect people's responses to survey questions in ways that the surveys themselves cannot measure. As social norms change, what was once acceptable may become unacceptable, and vice versa. We observed that trends in public opinion about pornography have been very minor, for example. These small apparent changes in public opinion may have masked major real changes because the content of the material itself may have changed