U.S. Intellectual History Blog

When (or is it how) do numbers matter?

I am a historian and…I think I like numbers. Is that a confession or a contradiction? Lately, I have sought refuge in public opinion polls when trying to write about public morality. Numbers are comforting in this endeavor because the idea of public morality is so conflicted and hazardous. To put it simply, when I am curious how blocks of Americans attempt to make sense of BIG issues such as war, abortion, same-sex unions, spreading democracy, the role of God in the nation’s history, etc., I turn to public opinion polls to help ground me in what I think is one kind of reality. However, as social scientists will point out, the polls that I depend on are little more than snapshots of discrete moments and unless I am ready to delve into data collection and regression analysis, I am doing little more than bolstering my own qualitative conclusions. And yet, numbers do matter. Would it not be irresponsible to disregard polls when writing about debates over, say, the Vietnam War or Reagan’s policies toward the Soviet Union?

When my colleague at USIH Mike O’Connor recently noted that 58% of Americans believe that God has granted America a special role in history, what are we to make of that number? It evokes, as Mike suggests, the larger idea of American exceptionalism—that Americans believe that the United States is special among contemporary nations. And yet, when I looked at polls from 2003-2008 regarding perceptions Americans had of their country, I found multiple snapshots that created an interesting composite picture.

For example, Daniel Yankovich pointed out in 2006 essay in Foreign Affairs, that Americans illustrated the self-awareness to acknowledge “that the rest of the world sees the United States in a negative light.” According to poll data that Yankovich collected and analyzed, many Americans understood that the United States was seen as “arrogant” (74 percent), “pampered and spoiled” (73 percent), a “bully” (63 percent), and a “country to be feared” (63 percent). However, this collective view did not undermine American opinion regarding a more abstract meaning of the nation itself, which many Americans continued to see in a positive light as a “free and democratic country” (81 percent), a “country of opportunity for everyone” (80 percent), and country generous to other people (72 percent) and a strong leader (69 percent).[1] Similar findings came through in international polls, such as the 2003 National Identity study from International Social Survey Programme (ISSP): while 40.7% of Americans polled agreed very strongly that the U.S. “is better than most other countries” (which ranked the United States first out of thirty-three countries), only 12.9% of Americans agreed very strong that the United States should follow its own interests, even if this leads to conflicts with other nations. [2]

We find interesting numbers in interesting times: when I looked at polls that dealt with the Iraq War, advancing democracy by war, and the approval rating of George W. Bush, it was all downhill from 2003-2007. During that same period, though, the public opinion of the military as an institution rose. Immediately after 9/11, Bush was wildly popular. As he left office he was dismally unpopular. Such numbers make sense in light of the events they reflect. But do they say something larger?

In other words, when do these numbers tell us something about the structure of public morality? If as Ronald Beiner explains about Kant’s idea of public morality, “our actions reflect our maxims, and our maxims are not reducible to natural impulses but instead are traceable to an ultimate (and inscrutable) ‘first ground,’” do our polls reflect our maxims?[3]



[1] Daniel Yankelovich, “The Tipping Points,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2006), accessed at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/20060501faessay85309/daniel-yankelovich/the-tipping-points.

[2] ISSP 2003, “National Identity,” accessed at: http://www.za.uni-koeln.de/data/en/issp/codebooks/ZA3910_cdb.pdf.

[3] Ronald Beiner, Civil Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 219.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Ray,

    What books other than Sarah Igo’s (I assume) are you using to historicize your poll usage? Or, what are the best books on poll usage?

    And, in the spirit of Igo, I wonder how many actors in the period you are interrogating use those polls as aspirational markers (i.e. 58% believe in a God-inspired exceptionalism, so perhaps I should too!)?

    On your last paragraphs, I do think the polls reflect something about the public application, or practicality, of moral principles, but probably less about moral absolutes. In other words, what kinds of maxims and morals are they discussing? And what kinds does the historian (i.e. you) want to discuss?

    – TL

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