An annoying, fascinating look at mid-1980s America

``My intention has been to report ... just what the life in America is during the mid-1980s and where it appears to be heading.'' So writes pollster Louis Harris in his latest work, ``Inside America'' (Vintage Books, New York). It's a sentiment worthy of a latter-day Tocqueville, whose 19th-century study of democracy in America remains a classic of individual insight. Mr. Harris, however, is a commentator of another stripe. For him, the road to wisdom lies through a proper sampling of public opinion. The result is a book as annoying as it is fascinating.

What makes it fascinating is the breadth and range of its approach. Harris's strategy was to gather all the polling data he could find - from his own firm, as well as from sources such as the Gallup Organization, the National Opinion Research Center, the Bureau of the Census, and others.

He next organized the best of what he found into three broad categories: ``Home and Family,'' ``Community,'' and ``The Nation and the World.'' He then wrote brief chapters under each heading. Finally, he summarized each of the three sections in a broad-brush commentary.

Fascinating, too, are the nuggets of detail. Here you can learn how Americans feel about their personal appearance (78 percent would like to be a different weight); about sleeping habits (more than 1 in 4 survives on six hours' sleep or less per night); about violence portrayed on television (78 percent disapprove of it); about the ethical behavior of business executives (70 percent say business fails in this area); and about the role of the federal government (41 percent now say it should exercise more power, up 11 points in the past four years).

But the annoyances of this book are manifold. Some are picky - the absence of an index, for example. Others are more troubling - such as the lack of comparable data from foreign countries, so that the reader is never sure, for instance, whether the obsession with weight is an American characteristic or a 20th-century trend. Still others, like Harris's failure to mention the margins of error in the surveys cited, are surprising lapses for a professional pollster: When Harris reports that John F. Kennedy (with 23 percent) ``leads'' Richard M. Nixon (22 percent) as the recent President viewed as ``the best in foreign affairs,'' the reader must wonder whether this one-percentage-point spread is in fact a distinction without a difference.

Unfortunately, this latter instance reflects yet another major annoyance, which is Harris's steady undercurrent of Reagan-bashing. Little is said in the President's favor: When the figures aren't against him, the bias of the language is. Fair-minded readers, finding in the Reagan administration plenty to blame and plenty to praise, may well be disconcerted at this political slant. Recalling the pluralities that elected and still support the President, they may well wonder who holds all those negative views Harris says he is recounting.

For all that, however, the fascination remains - in part because Harris manages to touch the pith of the nation's social problems in his summarizing chapters. He notes, for instance, that there is ``ample evidence'' that ``making it big and greedy'' is a ``given'' in contemporary society. He observes that today ``people are showing more signs of individual vanity than at any time since the 1920s.'' But he also notes that ``the signs all indicate that a massive revolt is in the offing that will kick over the vestiges of excessive materialism and showy demeanor.'' He seems convinced, in fact, that great changes are in the wind. America, he writes, is about to face ``a series of tough challenges, in which it appears that the fulfillment of certain ideas or dreams can only take place if new and sometimes radical approaches become the order of the day.''

Fascinating, yes. But true? That's the rub. The danger of polling, after all, is that it's nothing more than the study of mere opinion. It's sometimes the social equivalent of a cyclotron, in which tiny opinions are whirled about a closed track until they attain the atom-smashing force of apparent truth. The next time the public is polled on whether great changes are in the wind, for example, they will probably say, ``Yes, indeed.'' Why? Because they read all about it in Lou Harris's new book. But where did that book get its evidence? Why, from their own earlier opinions - where else?

A Monday column

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