Suppose one were to pose the question: why is anxiety so endemic to our current national life? The most likely response would be a supercilious shrug: naturally, anxiety must be the common state of those who have lived through upheaval, destruction, dislocation. Some would add self-evident political explanations—the threat of Communist totalitarianism, the perilous state of domestic civil liberties, or both. Others would stress the uneasy search for spiritual roots or the prevalence of anti-intellectualism.
As it happens, whatever relevant empirical data we have, that of the opinion polls reveals something quite different. Samuel Stouffer’s inquiry into attitudes towards Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties, based upon interviews with a representative national cross-section in the spring of 1954, included the question: “What kinds of things do you worry about most?” Only ten per cent said anything that could be classified under the headings of world problems, civil liberties, communism, etc.—the “big issues.” By contrast, almost everybody spoke of personal problems, and almost half emphasized economic worries.
When further prodded, a much larger proportion (about a third) expressed some disturbance over world affairs; direct, pointed questions would probably have brought out more. But the initial, spontaneous replies stand out....
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