PRRI/Brookings Survey, Part 2 – Leaders and 50’s Nostalgia

Another overlooked finding of this study is Americans views on leadership. Half of Americans agreed with following statement:

Because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.”

“Rules” is an unfortunate euphemism for laws. Half the country wants a president who will intentionally violate his oath to uphold the constitution, an impeachable offense. Almost no one thinks this is newsworthy.

The “things that are so far off track” are never specified. Brookings/PRRI simply assumes they exist, and respondents seem to agree. The report mentions economic insecurity, noting that 60% of working class respondents agree with. But that’s not all:

Americans who agree that the American way of life needs protection from foreign influence are much more likely than those who disagree to say that we need such a leader (59% vs. 36%, respectively). Americans who are concerned that they will personally be victimized by terrorism are also much more likely than those who are not worried to think that America needs this kind of leader (58% vs. 39%, respectively).”

Lots of Americans are frightened, and want a “strong” leader to take care of things. This is true of 59% of those with a high school education or less, 57% of Republicans, and a whopping 72% of Trump supporters. I suspect it wouldn’t be too hard for such a leader to round up a lynch mob.

Back to the 1950’s

PRRI/Brookings also asked: “Since the 1950’s, do you think American culture and way of life has changed for the better, or has it mostly changed for the worse?” There was almost a perfect 50-50 split between better and worse. About 70% of (white) evangelicals and 70% of Republicans think things are worse than in the 1950’s.

Lots of people view this era with nostalgia. Only about 5% of Americans are old enough to actually remember much about it. Life in America was very different. In most households, only the man worked. The wife took care of the house and kids. Generally, she had little alternative. About the only jobs available to women were secretary, nurse, teacher, or cleaning woman. Over fifteen percent of the labor force was unionized, the highest ever. Incomes were much more evenly distributed. A CEO generally made less than 30 times as much as the average worker, nearly one-tenth of today’s disparity. The top tax bracket was 90%, which helped limit greed (and possibly motivation).

Evangelicals have good reason for nostalgia. More Americans attended church than at any other time. Billy Graham was a  huge draw internationally, telling people to come to Jesus before those godless Commies blow up the world. Oral Roberts with his gospel of Seed Faith had the top rated show on television. But at the time, evangelicals warned that things were going to hell. Rock and roll was the devil’s music, made even worse by the libidinous new dances. Juvenile delinquency was a huge problem. And those two-piece bathing suits! Perhaps Catholics miss all the preaching and articles about the rhthym method, which the Pope declared to be the only moral means of birth control.

This was also the time of Jim Crow. Even north of the Mason-Dixon line, schools and housing were segregated. The civil rights movement had started, but had yet to achieve much.

Television was limited to the three networks, plus a few local channels, if your antenna could get them. It was full of tobacco ads, including doctors pitching the medical benefits of cigarettes. TV dinners were starting to catch on, as was fast food. It was all pretty bad. About the only ethnic food available was pizza and chop suey. People ate meat and potatoes. Vegetables were usually overcooked mush.

On the surface, Republicans have much to be nostalgic about. Eisenhower was the first Republican president since Hoover. But Eisenhower’s values were nothing like today’s Republicans. He raised taxes, spent huge sums on infrastructure, cut defense spending, and warned of the military-industrial complex. He was more liberal than many of today’s Democrats. During much of this period Senator Joseph McCarthy was a more popular Republican. In addition, the “conservative” South were “yellow dog” Democrats -- they would sooner vote for a yellow dog running on the Democratic ticket than a Republican.

Without knowing what the respondent was thinking about, you can’t really interpret his or her answers. PRRI/Brookings made virtually no attempt find out. But there is some indirect evidence, that I’ll discuss later.