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.
The report also describes a religious nation where traditional beliefs and practice continue to hold sway. Thus, 78 percent of respondents described prayer as an important part of their daily lives, and 84 percent agreed that even today miracles are performed by the power of God.
Generally optimistic about their country's institutions and ideals, respondents expressed satisfaction with their personal situations. Sixty-four percent said they were pretty well satisfied with the way things were going for them financially. Seventy-two percent described themselves as better off now than were their families when they were growing up.
In short, the Times Mirror study reveals an American public anything but angry or dispirited on most matters involving either their personal lives or their sense of the nation. Instead, it shows dissatisfaction focused on two key elements: ethics and government performance. Asked in the survey to assess moral and ethical standards, just 9 percent thought the United States has been making progress, 80 percent that we've been losing ground. The crime problem involves immediate threats to personal well-being and safety, but it's also seen reflecting profound moral shortcomings in contemporary life.
Americans aren't against government, but they are, as the new study demonstrates, highly dissatisfied with its current performance. Thus, 63 percent in the survey agreed that government regulation of business usually does more harm than good. Asked which view best describes how they feel - that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient, or that it often does a better job than people give it credit for - 66 percent picked the critical assessment.
These negative judgments led to a huge loss of confidence in government programs. In the past, the proposition that government has a responsibility to help those in need who lack other means of assistance usually received broad affirmation, even among segments of the public generally opposed to a large governmental role. But such is current dissatisfaction with performance that, in the new survey, 41 percent disagreed that it is government's responsibility to take care of people who can't take care of themselves - up from 24 percent seven years ago.
Americans aren't beset by malaise. But they are sending a strong call to elevate ethical standards and the level of government performance. They want reforms of current practice before backing new initiatives.