Optimism in the country's system of government has dropped to a new low when measured against polls going back 36 years, and the public's belief that America is the greatest nation on earth, while still high, has fallen significantly from its level a generation ago.
These results from the latest ABC News/Yahoo News poll, coming before next week's midterm elections, suggest that public disenchantment extends beyond its economic and political roots to broader questions about the country's governance and American exceptionalism.
The bottom hasn't fallen out of national pride: Seventy-five percent call the United States "the greatest country in the world." But that's down from 88 percent when the same question was asked in 1984. And nearly a quarter, 23 percent, now take the alternative view, saying America used to be the greatest country "but isn't anymore." That's up from 9 percent.
Optimism about the system has taken an even bigger hit in this poll, produced for ABC and Yahoo News by Langer Research Associates. Back in 1974 – shortly after Richard Nixon's resignation in the Watergate scandal – 55 percent of Americans were optimistic about "our system of government and how well it works." Today, 33 percent say that, the lowest number in nearly a dozen measurements taken across the decades. (None, though, were taken in the early 1990s, the last time economic disgruntlement was as high as it is now.)
BETTER NEWS -- There's better news on two fronts. First, while optimism is down, pessimism about the workings of government hasn't risen; 20 percent are pessimistic, about the average over 36 years of polls, and the number peaked much higher, at 28 percent, in 1996. Instead, the number saying they're "uncertain" about the U.S. system of government and how it's working -- 46 percent -- has reached a new high.
The question, which originated with the Roper Organization, admittedly is double-barreled: Is it the system that's the problem, or how it's working? More of the latter, apparently. In a new follow-up, this poll asked pessimistic or uncertain Americans what the problem was -- the system itself, or the people running the government. Answer: the people running the government, not the system itself, by a 3-1 margin, 74 percent to 24 percent.
Netted, this means that slightly less than half of Americans, 49 percent, are pessimistic or uncertain about the system and how it's working, and mainly blame the people running government for the problems. Sixteen percent are pessimistic or uncertain, and blame the system itself. And nearly all of the rest, 33 percent, are optimistic about the system.
While a plurality perceives a problem with the people running the government, there's also room for improvement in the public's own awareness of political candidates. Thirty-five percent of Americans concede that they don't know enough about their own selection of candidates to say how many of them, if any, "share your view of what needs to be done to improve things in this country." Nineteen percent say there are a lot or a good amount of such candidates; the plurality, 46 percent, says there are few or none. (See separate analysis here.)