Buried beneath the incendiary, wack-a-doo language being used in this presidential election is the language of past presidential elections. It may not be as noticeable (and maybe that's why it's important) but I'd like to draw your attention to one seemingly small rhetorical argument which has always bothered me. It’s the oft-cited stat about how many Americans feel as though the county is moving in the “right” or “wrong” direction. You’ll hear it most frequently as a talking point in the attempt to defeat an incumbent or the establishment candidate. I’ve always had this vague feeling the stat pretty much meant nothing but I could never figure out why. I think I now know.
In June of 2001, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reported that a scant 43 percent of Americans felt the country was “headed in the right direction.” A Gallup Poll conducted between September 7th, 2001 and September 10th, 2001 also showed 43 percent of Americans felt “satisfied” about the “way things were going” in the United States. A day later, of course, is September 11th. And it only takes a few words - Anthrax, Afghanistan, Tora Bora – and we’re back in those surreal post 9/11 days and weeks. We’re right back there watching CNN videos of a supposedly sick Osama Bin Laden and contemplating the feasibility of a dialysis machine in the mountains. It was a strange time. There was also a prevailing feeling within the United States that similar attacks would only be a matter of “when” not “if.” Yet, according to the Gallup Poll conducted days after 9/11, an astonishing 61 percent of Americans felt "satisfied" about the way things were going. The same NBC News Poll conducted in September of 2001 now reported an astonishing 73 percent of Americans felt the country was “headed in the right direction.” This is strange, right? We had just suffered one of the most devastating days in American history and yet people felt things were going…well? On the right track? No, obviously not, that’s not how people felt at all; people were afraid and wary of the future. People were afraid and wary of going to the mall. So I think we can safely conjecture that these responses to the “right direction” questions weren’t really about a right direction but, rather, a profound need to believe we – as a country - were headed in the right direction. And that's an enormous difference.
David Mamet mentions that a nation’s flag is most visible when the populous feels less secure. If nothing else, the days following 9/11 were genuinely patriotic, even the most cynical among us would agree to that. A loose definition of “patriotism” might be the belief in the country of doing the “right thing” so maybe those surprising poll numbers were just that feeling of patriotism quantified as a percent. And I think that makes sense but how to test the hypothesis? As I looked through the past historical polling data of the "right direction" questions, I tried to overlay an imaginary historical timeline of the recent United States; was there a connection? There was. The war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan begins on October 8, 2001 and, in a poll conducted between the 11th and 14th of that month, 67 percent of Americans now feel "satisfied." This satisfaction peaks as the war seems to be going well and – as progress slows – the numbers dip. But that’s only one example, are there others?
By January of 2003, Americans were beginning to feel as though we may have missed our best opportunity to capture Bin Laden. The war in Afghanistan was beginning to feel like the slog it would become. Meanwhile, at home, the case for war with Iraq was about to be made: President Bush’s State of the Union speech was followed by Colin Powell’s infamous speech to the United Nations in February of that year. Americans were grouchy and the polls reflected it. Gallup found only 34 percent of Americans felt "positive" about the "direction of the country" and NBC News reported only 36 percent were “satisfied.” Three months later, Operation Iraqi Freedom begins and what do the polls reflect? America, back on track. Gallup now finds 62 percent of Americans feeling positive and NBC News finds our national satisfaction to have risen to 50 percent.
Beyond war in general terms, we also see a similar response in singular, signature military acts. When Saddam Hussein was captured on December 14th, 2003 and later executed on December 30th, the polls responded in a similar manner (44 percent positive in November, 55 percent positive in January, according to Gallup). But this isn’t only a partisan situation. On May 2nd, 2011, when President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden had, in fact, been killed, the findings were similar. Both the Gallup and NBC polls showed an increase of 8 to 10 percent in the positive feelings about the direction of the country. Now, I'm not Nate Silver; I have no clue if this is causation or simply correlation. But, either way, the the resulting historical narrative underscores the utter lack of meaning of those right direction questions. Those things we supported so heavily – the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein’s execution and the killing of Osama Bin Laden – they haven’t led to any great American renaissance. And, truthfully, it’s kind of embarrassing to think they would.
So, when you’re watching the debate on Wednesday, listen for it. If you happen to hear Pence’s stump speech, listen for it. If, God forbid, Trump wins, listen to the next Democratic nominee for President, I guarantee you’ll hear it. And remember what kind of events trigger these kinds of positive feelings: unimaginable terrorist attacks, war-induced patriotism and the capture of enemy combatants. And please, above all, let’s not pretend the right direction questions have anything to do with proposed policy or even an imagined future of our country. They simply don’t.