DAVID WEBBER: Findings from 'Is America in decline?' survey

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:56 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A survey of the students in this semester’s class, their friends and other MU students, while not a valid representation of American society, provides several insights about “Is America in Decline?” The survey accurately reflects American public opinion on approval of Congress (now about 18 percent), President Obama (51 percent) and the likelihood that future generations will be as well off as their parents (54 percent for the class compared with 49 in a recent Gallup poll). Our respondents’ outlooks are similar to the American population with 21 percent saying we are on the right track, compared with 54 percent saying we are on the wrong track (it is 59 in national polls) and 25 percent who are not sure. A summary of the class survey is available here.

Unfortunately, the responses to the class survey are 60 percent male and 40 percent female, with a slightly Republican lean compared to my more recent classes. Seventy percent of the respondents are 18 to 24, so it is a young sample. Seventeen (of a total sample of 373) Columbia Missourian readers replied to the class survey — too few to make any generalizations. These readers were older, more likely to be female, just a trifle less likely to say America is in decline and about equally optimistic about the likelihood that the today’s younger generations will have a better life than their parents.

When asked “Overall, is America in decline?” one-third replied “Yes,” 50 percent said, “No, but we have major challenges ahead that we need to address,” and the remaining 15 percent said “No, we just have different problems than we used to have.”

As I wrote about in the Missourian on March 5, naming a class and framing a question is important. By 60 percent to 40 percent, our survey respondents thought that the question “Is America in decline?” was not a neutral question and that it had a negative tone that prejudged the condition of America. While there are correlates of “is the question of decline neutral? ” they are not related to ideology or party. Additionally, responses to “is decline neutral?” is not related to approval of Congress or approval of Obama.

People who think decline is neutral are more likely to believe we are on the wrong track. They are also more likely to blame globalization (56 percent of neutrals vs. 70 percent of not neutral) and blame U.S. policy (43 percent of “yes, neutral" vs. 29 percent of not neutral) for our changes in America over the past several decades. Only 15 percent for neutral compared to 24 percent for “no, decline is not neutral” respond they have confidence in our political system to solve long-term problems.

Responses to several questions suggest that respondents are concerned about economic inequality. Only 20 percent say that opportunity is equal in the U.S and 74 percent say that economic inequality threatens America’s prosperity. When asked how to reduce economic inequality, 38 percent pick non-tax efforts such as job-training and improved education while 48 percent support changing tax policy.

Only 20 percent thought the American political system was capable of handling long-term problems like the growing national debt compared with 58 percent who thought it was not, and the 21 percent who were uncertain. Only 16 percent replied that the present political system and constitution were not outdated compared with 59 percent who said we need minor changes and 25 percent who said we need major changes.

Overall, 77 percent trust the government to do what is right at least some of the time compared with 55 percent who trust the media to do what is right at least some of the time. When asked why other countries (“the rise of the rest” ) have caught up to the U.S. economically, 65 percent said it was because globalization has leveled the economic and political playing field” while 35 percent believe the U.S. has made serious policy mistakes that adversely affect us.

Asking about “Is America in decline?” makes some people a little uncomfortable. If you asked five people, at least one will say “of course, we are not in decline” and then will proceed to tick off a list of economic, budget, education, health care, infrastructure, immigration and governance problems we face.

As a political scientist, I tend to ask “is our political system up to the task of satisfactorily addressing our major concerns?” My best answer is: No, not to the level many citizens expect, but we won’t collapse either. We will muddle along and most likely make it through. Life is like that.

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU where he taught a course on "Is America in Decline?" He can be reached at This is his last column for the semester. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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