Inalienable Nation

Our national mood seems dark and stormy. The good news is, we feel empowered to change it

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Illustration by Gerard Dubois for TIME

It was back in 1966, when America's postwar consensus was showing some cracks, that Lou Harris launched his Alienation Index. Harris set out to measure an unsettling twist in the American story. "The hottest idea was that a mood of radical helplessness was blanketing the land," observes Rick Perlstein, author of the rollicking cultural history Nixonland. "America was suffering an epidemic of 'alienation.'" College kids were spitting on the American flag; suburban moms were marching against the war. The best-seller lists included books challenging the conclusions of the Warren Commission report on Kennedy's assassination. The President was an object of ridicule. "In Texas," an airline executive told TIME that October, "they wouldn't believe Johnson if he told them that next month was November."

So Harris devised five statements to measure how removed people felt from their leaders. The index derives from the average number of people who agree that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; what you think doesn't count very much anymore; the people running the country don't really care what happens to you; most people in power try to take advantage of people like you; you're left out of things going on around you."

These were sentiments that in other words defined the debate in 2010, as Tea Party protesters carried signs saying, DC: THE LONGER YOU STAY, THE LESS YOU REMEMBER ABOUT US, and bumper stickers declared that PUBLIC IGNORANCE IS CORPORATE BLISS. Between bailouts, deficits, another confounding war and a President whose approval rating ended the year at a personal low of 36% (but who could take comfort that Congress's stood at 11%), it would be easy to think America is, more than ever, Alienation Nation.

But that would be wrong. The Alienation Index, which stood at 29 in 1966, climbed to 59 in 1974 (the conclusion of Watergate) and reached 62 in 1983, in the midst of the Reagan recession. It kept rising during the first Bush Administration, to 66 in 1991 when the sense of common purpose fed by the first Gulf War gave way to economic gloom. That helped put the Democrats back in the White House after 12 years, but two government shutdowns in 1995 drove the index to a high of 67 as the evening news showed lawmakers squabbling while the NIH hotline went unanswered, toxic-waste cleanup was halted, passport applications went unprocessed and tourists were turned away from 368 national-park sites.

So how does the present moment compare? In 2010 the index was 52 — lower than it has been for most of the past 20 years. It's not that people think Washington is suddenly warm and welcoming and sensitive to their needs: fully 70% of people think the nation's leaders are out of touch. But how people feel about politicians may not matter as much as how we feel about ourselves — and only 37% of us feel that we are left out of things going on around us, compared with 51% in 1995.

Every day brings new evidence of a kind of personal empowerment, fueled by technology, that represents the very opposite of alienation. Feel helpless about media bias? Start a blog. Find popular culture coarse? Make your own movies on your smart phone. The iconic tableau of democracy in the new year came not from Washington but from Newark, N.J., where Mayor Cory Booker delivered diapers to a mom after her brother tweeted that she was trapped, snowbound. Suddenly, politics is flat.

As opportunities change, so do expectations. This past Thanksgiving, even as the recovery staggered and wheezed, 41% of Americans said they felt they had more to be thankful for than they did a few years ago. Fewer than a quarter are grateful for the current economic climate — one-third as many as 25 years ago — but 66% are grateful for their personal economic situation. A Gallup poll finds that 58% think 2011 will be better than 2010; 42% even think the U.S. will be governed better this year.

The Mad as Hell political narrative isn't going away, partly because watching the gargoyles do combat on cable has a certain entertainment value, and there is plenty to give viewers heartburn. But if I were a politician plotting my approach and agenda in 2011, I'd pay less attention to the noise, unless you're reading the bumper sticker that says SOMEWHAT IRRITATED ABOUT EXTREME OUTRAGE.