Can you really draw any conclusions from a focus group of a dozen people? The focus group in question, run by Democratic pollster Peter Hart in North Carolina, consisted of three Democrats, three Independents and six Republicans. They were all classed as late-deciders. So, let’s say it skews to the right, but not to the hard right.
Anyway, Peggy Noonan was fascinated by some of the group’s answers to Hart’s questions. Allow her to describe them:
What struck me about the group wasn’t its new insights, which were few. What was powerful was its averageness, its confirmation of what you’ve already observed. The members weren’t sad, precisely, but they were unillusioned. They were seeing things with clean eyes and they were disappointed. They wanted a candidate they could trust and believe in.
Which when you think about it shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Raise your hand, said Mr. Hart, if you like both candidates. No one did. Raise your hand if you like one candidate. No one did. Raise if you don’t like either. All 12 did.
Fair enough, these are undecided voters. They find both candidates disappointing. They feel that the political parties have let them down. Then again, who doesn’t?
What did they say about the candidates?
Donald Trump’s behavior in 2016 reminds you of what? asked Mr. Hart. The answers: “schoolboy,” “brat,” “child tantrum,” “rich kid” and “bully middle-schooler.” Hillary Clinton’s? “Robotic,” “liar,” “privileged,” “cool operator” and, if I heard right, “satellite dish.”
But, you have probably guessed that I am not introducing the Noonan column in order to say some more unflattering things about our presidential candidates, neither of whom is remotely presidential.
Not at all. Noonan has a larger point, a point that I have been making myself. That is: most of these people are fed up with the cult of American individuality and are bemoaning our divided nation, our shredded social fabric. They are seeking social harmony and are finding nothing but self-creating individuals, people who are largely out for themselves, no matter the cost for others.
To be Biblical, they are suffering because they are living in a divided house. To be more pedestrian, they do not, because they are not allowed, recognize that they are suffering anomie because they live in Barack Obama’s America. President Obama has worked as long and hard to divide the nation, by race, by class, by ethnic group? He has apologized for the nation at every opportunity and has routinely trashed American exceptionalism. Better yet, he was front and center when it came to mistaking Colin Kaepernick’s disloyalty for dissent.
In Noonan’s words:
When asked to describe the America they want, they wrote things like “a solid education system,” “no longer at war,” “people have joy in their work,” “leading the world in everything, including morals,” “equal opportunity and reward based on work,” “people haven’t lost their homes” and “a culture that improves us as a people.”
They want to end foreign wars. True enough. They also want to restore America’s place as a world leader. You will recall that President Obama squandered that, on purpose. They want rewards to be based on work. Which means that they are tired of diversity quotas and affirmative action programs. They must be especially tired of not being able to criticize the president because he is African-American or to criticize Hillary because she is a woman.
Many of their hopes were communal, societal, not individual. A great instructive lesson for conservatives this year is that Margaret Thatcher’s individualist vision, expressed with the words “There’s no such thing as society,” has given way, or rather shifted weight. The individual is key and crucial, but everyone is worried about our society and culture now; they see the nation as a shared entity with shared problem.
To be fair to Margaret Thatcher, she was effectively arguing against big government solutions to everyone’s problems. As you know, some people believed that, for every problem we need a government program.
Here is her larger quotation, from 1987:
I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.
Now that we have saved Lady Thatcher from a remark that can be easily misinterpreted, we will return to Noonan’s point. She sees people who want merely to belong to their society, not just to their tribe or faction or special interest group. They want to be united not divided, to work with others, not to feel that they are in it on their own.
So, enough with the individualism. Enough with the lone ranger mentality, the person charged merely with the task of self-actualizing. As I said yesterday, one presidential candidate embodies a cult to individual self-actualization. The other acts as though she is in it for herself.
Noonan concludes that the focus group members are good people. We all concur. They do not have lofty aspirations about saving the planet or about going to the barricades to fight for social justice. They just want to live normal, peaceful lives. They want to live in harmony with every other American. They want to allow their children to go out and play without having to supervise their every movement. They want to be able to say a prayer in public schools, to base their moral values on something other than the survival of the strongest or on the will to power.
And they do not want to spend their evenings explaining the sexual antics of presidents and presidential candidates to their children.
In Noonan’s words:
Mr. Hart asked about how they see the 2016 campaign in historical terms. A man who appeared to be in his 30s said it was “like a soldier going to Vietnam,” by which he meant “no good outcome” and “no choice.” Twenty sixteen reminded another of the Monica Lewinsky scandal—low, embarrassing and leaving you “hurt for our country.” Another respondent remembered a talk from those days with a precocious 2½-year-old relative. She looked up at him one day and asked, “Uncle John, what’s a blow job?” He wanted to punch Bill Clinton in the face. Later a respondent, being asked what has happened to America, said: “Moral failure from the top starts to trickle down.”
The only thing missing from these reflections is the name of the person who is responsible for America’s moral failure. That would be our current president. But, all things considered, you are not allowed to say it, in public, at least.