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Why everyone agrees that America is on 'the wrong track'

An NBC News poll shows Americans are pessimistic — but they can't agree what the right direction looks like.

Americans aren’t happy with the way things are going in this country. That’s according to the most recent NBC News poll, released last week, which found that 72 percent of respondents believe that “things are off on the right track.” Only 22 percent answered that things are “headed in the right direction.”

There is no real consensus anymore on what the “right track” is.

That pretty closely mirrors Gallup, which asked if respondents were “satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going.” Last December, the polling group found that 21 percent of Americans were satisfied, with 79 percent saying they were dissatisfied. That’s the kind of number that gets circulated around Washington as an argument against the ruling party’s agenda. And it will surely be called a death knell for Democrats ahead of this fall’s midterm elections.

But here’s the thing about both polls: They ask the wrong questions. There is no real consensus anymore on what the “right track” is. Accordingly, we get a political Rorschach test onto which partisans can project their perspectives.

You have to go back to the Clinton era to find the high point in Gallup’s polling. A full 71 percent of respondents were satisfied with the country’s direction when surveyed on Feb. 12-13, 1999. That poll coincided with President Bill Clinton’s acquittal in his impeachment trial. Broadly, it was a time of peak centrism. Both Democratic and GOP politicians were seen as swinging hard to the middle, to the point that ahead of the 2000 election voters thought things would be about the same no matter who won. The economy was doing well overall. There was low unemployment, the dot-com industry was booming. What wasn’t there to love?

The high point in NBC News’ polling came in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when 72 percent of Americans said the country was heading in the right direction. Gallup saw a similar “rally around the flag” effect in the subsequent weeks. The second-highest result — 70 percent of Americans satisfied — was measured between Dec. 6-9, 2001. That number slid through the coming months, before spiking again to 60 percent in March 2003 as the Iraq War began.

It’s all been downhill from there. January 2004 was the last time Gallup showed a majority of Americans happy with the direction of the country. As measured by both polls, satisfaction with the country’s direction cratered during the financial crisis in the fall of 2008. Gallup measured 7 percent satisfaction in September of that year; NBC News reported that 12 percent believed the country was moving in the “right direction.” At no point since then has either poll caught more than 40 percent of Americans in an optimistic mood.

Even Gallup’s analysts see the disconnect between their respondents’ answers and external stimuli. “As is almost always the case, Americans who identify with the party of the president are more likely than others to be satisfied with the way things are going,” Gallup said in October 2018, when a recent high of 38 percent of Americans were satisfied with the U.S.’s trajectory. “Specifically, 69 percent of Republicans in the latest poll report being satisfied, compared with 36 percent of independents and 12 percent of Democrats — similar to last month.”

You can see that correlation more clearly in Morning Consult’s daily tracking of the “right direction/wrong track” question. Sixty-two percent of Republicans were feeling good just ahead of the 2020 presidential election — by the time the election was called for President Joe Biden, that number had plummeted. Democrats, meanwhile, felt terrible about the country’s direction ahead of the election but became much more confident about things soon after Biden’s inauguration.

Two respondents certain the country is going in the wrong direction can come to that conclusion for entirely different reasons.

Also, with the policy differences between the parties so stark, two respondents certain the country is going in the wrong direction can come to that conclusion for entirely different reasons. One may look at the Biden administration’s lack of progress on immigration reform; another may be convinced that the administration is too lenient toward undocumented immigrants and border crossers. These two people would want very different futures for the country. That’s just one example — and yet if one side was to actually feel satisfied, would a majority of the country be convinced that things were going well?

I understand the theoretical utility of trying to take the country’s temperature. But declaring that “America is on the wrong track” based on such polling is absurd. As it stands, analysts and pundits are pretending that they’re using objective data to explain the political fortunes of our elected leaders and the policies they’re advocating. But nothing substantive is being measured — it’s all just vibes.