Meet the Alienated Optimists

It ought to be good news that the amount of “alienation” Americans feel is on the low end of the range as measured since 1966 by the Harris Poll’s Alienation Index. But while the overall Index number is lower than in the previous four years, majorities of the respondents vented plenty of alienation on some of Harris’s specific questions.

In 2009’s poll (conducted last month), 57 percent endorsed the statement, “Most people with power try to take advantage of people like yourself.” Fifty-six percent agreed that “What you think doesn’t count very much any more” and 53 percent that “The people running the country don’t really care what happens to you.” Even more, 66 percent, agreed that “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” while fewer (35 percent) assented to the statement, “You’re left out of things going on around you.”

These responses averaged out to a Harris Alienation Index number of 53 for 2009, down from 58 last year but matching the average for the decade. Men are a bit more alienated than women (54 vs. 52.) Despite the stereotype of the alienated intellectual, the Index number varies inversely with level of education, from 59 for respondents with a high school diploma or less to 44 for those with post-graduate degrees.

The levels of alienation detected by the Index would lead one to think Americans are highly discontented. But another bit of Harris polling, fielded at exactly the same time, finds quite the opposite. Eighty-eight percent of respondents said that, “on the whole,” they’re satisfied with their lives, with 54 percent of them “very” satisfied. Just 3 percent said they’re “not at all satisfied.”

Moreover, a plurality see their lives moving in a positive direction. Forty percent said their lives “improved” during the past five years, vs. 27 percent saying their lives “got worse.” (Most of the rest said things “stayed about the same.”) Looking ahead to the next five years, an outright majority (54 percent) think their lives will improve, vs. just 15 percent saying things will get worse.

The poll’s 18-30-year-olds were by far the most likely to say their lives have improved in the past five years (64 percent) and to say they expect improvement in the next five years (82 percent).