Americans Aren't Sure Anything In America Works Anymore

A new survey finds rising numbers who say the deck is stacked and our best days are over.

Here's a brief, non-exhaustive list of things that a new poll says Americans don't have much faith in: the government, businesses, the economy, the power of their vote and the future of the United States.

The overall mood of the country is one of "anxiety, nostalgia and mistrust," according to the 2015 American Values Survey, which was released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute.

"Fear is not an emotion that you see often in public opinion polls, but it was clearly there in the fall of 2008 and early 2009" after the economic collapse, said Karlyn Bowman, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, during a Tuesday panel discussion of the survey. "Americans aren't confident that we've fixed what went wrong."

Many, in fact, see the country as on the decline. The poll found that 53 percent of Americans say the nation's culture and way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s. Forty-nine percent now say America's best days are behind it, up from 38 percent who said the same in 2012. Democrats remain more bullish, while Republicans and tea party members are the most pessimistic. 

A sense of nostalgia isn't unique to the present day: Back in 1939, most Americans thought "the horse-and-buggy" days were happier than their era. (Granted, those people had just lived through the Great Depression and were heading into World War II.)

But Americans today are deeply worried about their economic prospects. Nearly three-quarters believe the country is still in a recession, unchanged since last year. An increasing majority -- now nearly 80 percent -- say the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, with even more agreeing that corporations do not share enough of their success with their employees. A rising number also say they're troubled that not everyone in the U.S. gets an equal chance in life.

There's also a growing antipathy toward people perceived as outsiders. In the survey, which was taken well before the Paris terror attacks, 56 percent say that the values of Islam are at odds with American values, up 9 points in the past four years. Forty-eight percent say they're bothered when encountering immigrants who speak little or no English, up 8 points since 2012.

And many Americans feel personally disenfranchised. Nearly two-thirds say their vote doesn't matter because of the influence that wealthy individuals and big corporations have. Fifty-seven percent say the federal government doesn't really look out for people like them.

The pessimism, though, isn't equally shared across demographic lines.

Although black and Hispanic Americans are far more likely than whites to see police mistreatment, crime and a lack of opportunities for young people as major problems in their communities, they're also considerably more likely to believe the country has changed for the better since the '50s.

Disaffection among the white working class -- a voting bloc being courted by both parties -- is especially pronounced. White, working-class Americans are 20 points more likely than white, college-educated Americans to be bothered by immigrants who don't speak English, and 16 points more likely to believe the country is in a recession. Sixty percent of the former group think discrimination against whites has become as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities,

"This year is the revenge of class," Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said at the panel discussion. "Whether you're talking about [Donald] Trump on the populist right or Bernie Sanders on the left, the issue of socioeconomic class is front and center in a way that it hasn't been in quite some time."

PRRI surveyed 2,695 adults between Sept. 11 and Oct. 4, both online and by telephone.

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America's 'Working Poor'