Americans are feeling less alienated than they have in twenty years, but the vast majority of citizens still feel that Washington officials are out of touch with real Americans, says research from Harris Interactive. In addition, levels of alienation vary according to demographics: Hispanics feel more alienated than African-Americans and Whites, and people with more education feel less alienated than those with less education.
Overall, however, trends in feelings of alienation are modest, with small changes in sentiment when compared to last year’s poll. When asked if they agreed with the statement that “The rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer,” just over two-thirds of adults concurred (68 percent) compared with roughly the same number as last year (66 percent). Half of American adults state that those who run the country “don’t really care what happens to you,” (50 percent this year, versus 53 percent last year). While this year fewer adults agree with the statement that “most people in power try to take advantage of people like you,” (53 percent in 2010 versus 57 percent in 2009) this sentiment still resonates with more than half of Americans. These numbers are similar to the number of those who agree that “what you think doesn’t count much anymore” (52 percent this year, compared with 56 percent last year). Finally just over a third of Americans feel “left out of things going on around them,” (37 percent in 2010 versus 35 percent in 2009).
What role does a sense of alienation play in our society’s political happenings?
“One’s alienation relates to how connected citizens feel to others—among their peers and within the broader society,” explains Robert Alexander, PhD, associate professor of political science at Ohio Northern University. “The less connected one feels, the greater their alienation. As the argument goes, if you feel like nobody in power is listening to you, it wouldn’t make sense for you to vote.”
Sean Foreman, PhD, assistant professor of political science at FL-based Barry University, says that the findings reflect many Americans’ identification with the President.
“When people feel good personally about their leaders they feel a closer connection to the government,” he explains. “This is evident in the decrease in alienation over the two years with Obama as President. His campaign engendered a lot of goodwill and hopefulness for the future.”
While time will tell as to whether Obama’s goals for the country will be achieved, just his presence in the White House is significant to many Americans.
“Whether or not his administration is able to deliver on specific promises, many people still feel good about his historic presidency and the promise it portrays for living up to American ideals,” Foreman notes.
Despite many feeling a connection with the President, the majority of Americans—70 percent—feel that Washington officials are “out of touch” with the rest of the country, reflecting a similar sentiment as last year (72 percent).
Race is a Factor
Findings indicate that race plays a role in levels of alienation among Americans. Hispanics, for instance, tend to feel more alienated than African-Americans and Whites, with this group rating an index of 55 compared to 49 and 52, respectively.
“Minorities have traditionally lagged behind whites when it comes to voter participation. The same seems to be true among feelings of alienation,” Alexander says. “The recent decrease in alienation among African-Americans is most likely a reflection on election of America’s first African-American President.”
While African-Americans may feel more connected, Hispanics have suffered a greater sense of alienation.
“Hispanics may have higher feelings of alienation because of the national debate over immigration policy that has heated up over the last five years,” Foreman explains. “Many feel that they are being targeted by the government. Also, because of language barriers Hispanics sometimes feel isolated and outside of the mainstream and thus more alienated from the system.”
Also noting the Arizona legislation and national rhetoric on illegal immigration, which has primarily focused on Hispanics, Alexander adds, “In this light, it is not surprising that feelings of alienation would rise.”
This group simply does not see itself represented enough in politics, he contends. “Because there are few Hispanic national political leaders it can lead to feeling unattached and disconnected from the system,” Foreman adds.
More Education = Less Alienation
Notably, educational attainment is also a factor in alienation. Less educated individuals rate a higher alienation index, with those holding a high school diploma rating an index of 56. Those with a post-graduate education rate 43, and those with a college degree rate 44 on the index.
Educated Americans may feel more empowered by their knowledge and understanding of policies and the system, and more capable of effecting change, Foreman notes.
“People who are more educated feel more connected because they have a good grasp of issues and a better understanding of the system,” he says. “If you know who to contact or where to go with your concerns then you will feel more comfortable about government and leaders.”
Alexander agrees that education facilitates citizens’ perception that they have a strong political voice. “Education has always gone hand-in-hand with one’s social connectedness,” he explains. “With greater education, citizens are able to observe the multiple ways they affect others and are affected by others. They also learn civic skills that enable them to more fully participate in the political process.”
Surprisingly, the economy seems to have an unexpected effect on feelings of alienation. As the economy has spiraled downward, overall levels of alienation have also diminished, while levels remained higher during the economic boom of the 1990s.
“It is odd to see that in times of relative economic prosperity and peace like the 1990s the level of alienation was quite high,” Foreman states. “It indicates that people may feel less of a connection to government when they are not looking to it for help or support with their quality of life.”
Other issues also affect Americans’ alienation levels—particularly terrorism, war, civil rights and political scandals—and while some findings are expected, others are surprising.
“Levels of alienation were also quite low in 2001 and in the following three years when feelings of national pride were at their highest in recent memory,” Foreman notes. “This sense of patriotism allowed people to feel closer to the government.”
“Strangely, alienation was the lowest in the late 1960s when there was a large cultural clash over civil rights and the American involvement in Vietnam,” he says. “Predictably, it shot up after the Watergate affair in the early 70s, and steadily rose over the next two decades as we saw several government scandals and an increasing disparity in wealth in society.”
In 2010, modern technology may improve Americans’ confidence in their ability have their voices heard, Foreman concludes.
“In general people may feel less alienated because they have more information and access to government than ever before,” he explains. “The Internet empowers people to solve their own problems. It allows people to have greater control over their destiny and ultimately to create a closer connection to society.”
Alexander offers a different perspective, citing the lagging economy and concerns about terrorism.
“As the ‘war on terror’ moves into its ninth year and the economy continues to slumber along, many Americans feel that more problems, rather than answers are coming from Washington, DC,” he says.
Also, Alexander adds, the Eighties are back.
“In many ways, the mood of the country is very much like the mood that brought Ronald Reagan to office in 1980,” he concludes. “Obama drew comparisons to Reagan during the 2008 campaign, but it has yet to be determined whether he is to be cast as Reagan or Jimmy Carter.”