Nation is stuck in a rut

American public opinion is stuck. In a rut. Pollsters and policymakers poring over polls these days seldom find consensus that drives policy innovations. What is causing this curious caution by the electorate? In part, the presidential election is gumming up the works. Americans want to see which way the nation heads before committing to a course of action. But it’s more than that. Other factors are contributing to an indecisive and timid nation.

Evidence of this trend starts with the flat issue agenda. A recent CBS News poll, conducted in mid-September, asks: What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today? Only two issues, Iraq (28 percent) and the economy (16 percent), garnered double-digit mentions. A host of other issues, including healthcare (8 percent), were mentioned by single-digit totals. Most enlightening is that 16 percent of Americans mentioned problems so narrowly unique or obscure that they couldn’t be grouped even under broad headings like “miscellaneous social issues” or “miscellaneous government issues.” Doubtless some of these are personal issues like “my kid’s fifth-grade teacher” or “the pothole at the end of my driveway.”

Adding insult to the indecision, 5 percent of the Americans polled couldn’t name even one most important problem facing the country. Try to imagine it. Big-time CBS News calls up an American, flatters him by asking his opinions, and then he can’t think of anything. That defies everything I know about the role of social desirability in polling. Anyone called by CBS should feel social pressure to at least make up a problem. But 5 percent couldn’t.

What is going on here? Is our quality of life in America so good that we don’t have pervasively serious problems? Or are we so involved in personal or local problems that we can’t see national troubles? Is a fragmented media splitting the issue agenda? Or are we just clueless civic illiterates?

Whatever the cause, this flat national issue agenda “problem” has been around for years now. Because we cannot coalesce a majority around the notion that any particular issue is “most important,” we don’t have much incentive or the critical mass necessary to find and implement a solution. Pretend that you are in charge of rallying Americans toward healthcare reform, the “third most important issue in America.” Where and how do you start? Nine of 10 Americans don’t think your quest is their top priority. So getting them to even listen to your pitch is tricky.

The challenge we face gets more complicated when we move to identifying solutions. There is no consensus on Iraq, healthcare, immigration or a host of other issues. On other top issues, especially the economy, there is not even any agreement about what part of the economy is most needful of attention. So even concluding that the electorate considers “the economy” a top priority doesn’t point policymakers in any particular direction.

When I have been involved at the state or local level in this sort of policy agenda and innovation conundrum, someone will inevitably say, “Why don’t we ask voters what we should do?” Don’t laugh. I’ve heard that line dozens of times. Sometimes I have even conducted focus groups on a thorny matter and told the participants, “Policymakers want to know what you think they should do.”

Some voters laugh, cynically. Other voters get angry. The angry ones seem to think that solving the problem isn’t their job, it’s their leaders’ jobs. They say, “You go back and tell THEM to figure this out. Don’t ask US.”

This may be the ultimate answer. Until we have leadership that identifies issue priorities and forges solutions, we may just have to trundle along with a muddled and fragmented issue agenda where nothing in particular is very important.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.