Mellman: I'm OK, but you're not

Mellman: I'm OK, but you're not
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I’ve long said there is a minor Ph.D. dissertation in it.

Spoofing a late 1960s self-help guide, it’s a phenomenon I labeled, “I’m OK, you’re not.”

It’s the tendency to think things are alright in our own spaces but pretty awful elsewhere.

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I first noticed it during the health care reform debate of the 1990s. Nearly 8 in 10 Americans were dissatisfied with the nation’s health insurance system, but 7 in 10 were satisfied with their own coverage. People thought their own health insurance was pretty good, but everyone else’s was pretty lousy. 

President Clinton’s health care reform effort foundered in part on the shoals of that conundrum. Voters wanted to change the system without altering their own personal health care arrangements. Pretty difficult in practice. 

However, “I’m OK, but you’re not” reaches far beyond any one issue: it’s proven to be a pervasive reality.

In 2020, Gallup found only 35 percent of Americans were satisfied with the “quality of public education in the nation,” but 72 percent were satisfied with the quality of education their own children were receiving.

Similarly, in one state my firm interrogated, just 33 percent rated the quality of education positively statewide, while 53 percent were positive about schools in their neighborhood.

The pattern is consistent: the further away from the respondent, the worse the rating. In the public mind, schools in my neighborhood are worse than my own kids’ school, schools in the state are worse than that, and nationally they are pretty abysmal.

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Crime? Ipsos just found 62 percent of Americans saying violent crime increased nationally in the last year. In the same survey, only 30 percent said there was more violent crime in their local community.

Here it’s OK, but the rest of you inhabit hell.

That future Ph.D. dissertation will explore why this phenomenon is so pervasive. Meantime, I’ll suggest a couple possibilities.

One explanation focuses on the difference between personal and mediated experience.

We directly experience our own lives, and, to some extent, our communities’ situation. But it’s difficult for us to directly assess what’s happening far away. We rely on the media to tell us about conditions in our state or country.

Press, of course, naturally focuses on the negative. When stories about violent crime, or problematic schools or a rotten health insurance system predominate, as they usually do when those topics are covered, we tend to assume they reflect what’s happening elsewhere.

But our own experience with crime and insurance and schools often tells us a very different story about circumstances closer to home. We recognize the great classroom teacher our child is lucky enough to have; most of us aren’t seeing violent crime daily; and our insurance takes care of us, especially when we aren’t really sick, which is most of the time for most of us.

Another possibility presumes our standards are different for personal experience and global judgment.

We may feel our insurance is pretty satisfactory. But we may believe that if even a few people cannot get covered for lifesaving treatments they need, then the system is deeply flawed.

No doubt others will offer more and better explanations.

Finally, though, consider why students of public opinion must remain cognizant of “I’m OK, but you’re not.”

Across a range of issues, judging public opinion at just one level of analysis — personal, local, or national — can be misleading.

How do Americans really feel about the quality of education, or the prevalence of crime, or the state of the economy?

It very much depends. If I told you 35 percent were satisfied with school quality, you would reach a very different conclusion than if I told you it was 72 percent.

Yet both are wholly accurate. Asking about just one level of analysis is as likely to be misleading as informative.

Alas, getting the whole picture is complex and costly. I’m OK with that, but you may not be.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.