Monday, June 05, 2006

Why Are Oregonians Negative About Their Government?

Pollster Adam Davis spoke at a City Club meeting on May 12th about current attitudes of Oregonians toward their state and local governments.

He found that negative public opinion of Oregon government at all levels is the highest it has ever been. Less than a fifth of Oregonians rate state and local governments as doing a good job. Or putting it the other way, more than 80% are dissatisfied. George Bush's recent low ratings are a wild success compared to these ratings.

We are seeing the highest levels of cynicism, negativism, and skepticism in 30 years of doing quantitative and qualitative research in Oregon. When we ask people about credibility and trust, government is now at the bottom of the list. It is right down there with politicians. Government-Politicians. We used to see some differences between levels of government. We used to see people be more positive about local government than about state government, and more positive about state government than the federal government.

We're no longer seeing big differences. All of government is lumped together and has sunk right down to the bottom of the list of institutions that people trust. Less than 20% of the general public will rate any level of government as doing a very good job.

Why are Oregonians so unhappy? Davis lists waste, misconduct, and incompetence in governing as key factors.

There are the usual reasons you know and hear about - waste, inefficiency, malfeasance. But there's something else too. What we hear about a lot is government is just not getting the job done. We hear about in-fighting - the Multnomah County Commission comes up quite a bit. We hear about the Oregon Legislature-Democrats and Republicans fighting like cats and dogs.

But, since government has always had these problems, the question remains: Why public opinion about government has fallen so low? Davis thinks it's due, in part, to negative headlines about government.

So it's waste, it's inefficiency, but it's also great frustration that things are just not getting done. In my opinion, this is resulting in lower voter turnout and people tuning out government and politics altogether. It's fueled every day by real-life headlines in the paper like:

"Ward Weaver, Pond & Gaddis: 'Workers put on leave over handling abuse reports'"
"Use of county cars revs debate"
"Outlaws go free, warrants pile up"
"Stink still rises in city sewer deal"
"Dirty dealings mar clean money law"
"Few watched over City's till while it was emptied"
"Police chief's judgment is now on trial"
"The city that isn't quite working"

Over and over people are being exposed to this and it's having an impact on their attitudes toward government and politics.

What's interesting about this answer is that although Davis is quoting newspaper headlines here, he goes on to say that fewer and fewer people are reading daily newspapers.

Are headlines about Oregon government more negative today than, say, ten years ago? Maybe. But the headlines above don't seem to communicate slashing criticism about state and local government. Or at least, not criticism unrelated to the seriousness of the facts presented in the story. Though I disagreed with the Portland Tribune's take in "Stink still rises in city sewer deal", "stink" doesn't seem out of bounds when you are talking about an issue that includes dumping 660,000 gallons of sewage into the Willamette River in one day.

I think Davis' has a better answer in his fifth point: the disconnect in community leadership values and public values.

It's something I call values disconnect between a lot of you who are community and business leaders and the bell on the bell shaped curve of public opinion. We all feel strongly about certain things including civic involvement, our jobs, family, and religion and spirituality. But what we are seeing in our research are differences in emphasis and weighting between business and community leaders and the general public.

Leaders tend to emphasize career and job opportunity and civic involvement more, while the general public tends to place more emphasis on family and religion and spirituality. My friends, the Republicans figured that out a lot earlier than the Democrats (if they have even figured it out by now). So what, you might ask? It comes down to communication. These two groups--both very important to the health of a community--are not very good at communicating with each other.

This is a key point, and I think Davis along with lots of other political analysts doesn't really understand the problem. It is not just a poor communication problem. There is a real disconnect between how the general public views life and political and community leaders view life.

It comes out every so often when pundits urge Democrats to retake faith issues by pointing out how God is concerned with the poor. Which, of course, He is.

Leaving aside the sticky question of whether God's political agenda for caring for the poor mirrors the Democratic agenda, there is another major problem.

The general public believes God is concerned about marriage, abortion, sexual promiscuity, child pornography, unfair treatment, heavy taxes, lack of police protection and lots of other issues as well as caring for the poor. It doesn't cut it to say to them, "You need to stop thinking about those other moral issues and just focus on the ones we think are important." Picking and choosing among moral axioms is not what faith is about. It's not about picking; it's about obeying. The general public gets it, but politicians and analysts don't seem to.

As long as government and community leaders don't understand that the average citizen does not live as though government, family and religion were isolated states of being, the negative attitude toward government will just keep growing.

Davis almost makes this connection when he talks about the public view of education vs. the community leader/government view.

What about schools and wasteful administration? I hear so many business and community leaders saying it is all about the amount of money being spent on administrators. If we could just turn this around, we could get them to support more funding for schools. Wrong. When they are talking about waste and inefficiency, and this is the value of focus group research, they are talking about other things as well. One thing being missed in this discussion is curriculum. You have a lot of folks who are unhappy about what is and is not included in the curriculum. I may ruffle some feathers in this group, but what we hear about over and over again is the lack of values-based education. I'm just the messenger here-I'm just telling you what I'm hearing. What these Oregonians want in our public schools is something that will result in students who graduate with a stronger work ethic and a greater level of civility.
[emphasis mine]

The values disconnect alluded to here has a moral dimension that seems to be lost on governmental, community and educational leaders. This is a central issue, if not the central issue, in why Oregonians have less and less trust in government.

Adam Davis gave an interesting, thoughtful critique. It is well worth reading and pondering.

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