The poll results are extraordinary: the proportion of Americans who thought the country was ‘heading in the right direction’ rose sharply when Donald Trump became president of the US, while the proportion who thought it was ‘off on the wrong track’ dropped. The numbers were even at about 50%.
Negative perceptions have increased again since, but remain lower than during the Obama presidency. In September 2010, the earliest US data in the recent Ipsos report, ‘What worries the world’, about 70% thought the US was on the wrong track, 30% that it was heading in the right direction. In September 2018, the ratio was about 60% ‘wrong track’ to 40% ‘the right direction’ – about the same as the world average.
The US findings are at odds with so much of the media commentary about Trump, especially in the liberal media: his loss of the popular vote, the gerrymandering, the Russian interference, his low approval rating, the sustained criticism of him in the mainstream media. What can explain the trends? I want to offer one explanation, based on a social, not political, analysis; there may be others.
The answers we get in survey questions depend critically on their wording. In this case the question was not asking anything about the presidency, Trump and his actions and utterances. It asked Americans, ‘Generally speaking, would you say things in this country are heading in the right direction, or are they off on the wrong track?’
I have long argued that people’s concerns about modern life and the future have been poorly reflected in politics, and it is this that lies behind the unease and disenchantment in the electorate, not just the conduct of politicians and the merits of specific policies.
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