Survey says: Americans are angry, pessimistic about national politics

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Are you feeling upbeat and optimistic about the future? Too prone, perhaps, to smiling? Sleeping well?

May we recommend spending a few minutes with a newly published Pew Research Center survey of American adults, summarized in a 143-page report that will suck out your soul.

The survey asked a large sampling of US adults— more than 13,000— for their opinions and feelings on “the state of the nation’s politics.” As you might surmise, it reveals a republic that is wallowing in chronic despair, bereft of both confidence and trust in government and political leaders, and “exhausted” even at the thought of engaging in discourse about the nation’s future.

It paints a painful, pessimistic and pitiful picture of a people who are on the verge of giving up on the whole experiment of self-governance. And yet, as the Pew report points out, it comes amid a surge in actual voter participation nationally, as the last three federal elections resulted in “three of the highest-turnout US elections of their respective types in decades.”

What to make of this cognitive dissonance? That’s the unenviable task that will fall to a panel of leaders— including this newspaper’s co-publisher, Linda Dorcena Forry— at Dorchester’s EMK Institute on Thursday evening. The Columbia Point forum (Oct. 5, 6 p.m.) will include the former US Senator from South Dakota Tom Daschle, former NJ Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, and Mike Barnicle, the former Globe columnist and MSNBC contributor. Collectively, they’ll be asked to “chart a path forward” out of the malaise.

By every measurement outlined in this report, it’ll be a steep and harrowing climb. About two-thirds of us have either zero or not-too-much confidence in the system as it's presently constituted. Trust in the federal government is at its lowest point in 70 years, with only 16 percent indicating that they trust in the government most or all of the time.

And most aren’t just tired of the impasse and dysfunction. More than half— 55 percent— are “angry.” About one-in-ten are hopeful. When asked to describe the tone today, the top one-word answers are “divisive,” “corrupt,” and “chaos.”

If there’s any solace to be found, it’s that the disdain for the present situation mainly cuts across partisan lines. A pox on all their houses is the basic premise. Eighty-six percent agree that both “Republicans and Democrats are more focused on fighting each other than on solving problems.”

There’s bipartisan consensus, it seems, on trying to bring a younger lens to the scene. Seventy-nine percent of people say they favor instituting a maximum age for elected officials— and 74 percent think that an age-out rule should apply to Supreme Court justices as well.

The weariness quotient extends to the “tone” that the vast majority of Americans— 84 percent— say has “worsened” over the last several years. There’s an awareness that also cuts across party lines that discourse has become “less fact-based” — a statement that 82 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of Democrats agree with.

The Kennedy Institute has taken on as part of its mission the goal of finding common ground and breaking through the divide that this report suggests could be an existential threat to our democracy. Thursday’s discussion is a welcome next step.

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