James Devine wasn’t at all sure he wanted to talk to me. Here we were just outside a Walmart superstore in northeast Philadelphia, next to a strip of historic U.S. Highway 1 that a few years ago had looked like a main street in Eastern Europe during its worst post-war days. Now the whole place had a distinctly up-to-date look.
I had just asked Mr. Devine, whom I guessed was maybe 30 years old, if I could borrow his thoughts for a few minutes as part of a public opinion survey. I asked him if he’d ever been interviewed by a “national magazine,” and that got his attention. How worried was he, I asked for starters, about this thing the experts were calling the fiscal cliff. “Oh, yah—that,” he said with a grin. “To tell you the truth, I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. And I’m not sure they do either.”
Longtime readers of this column are better prepared than Mr. Devine was for what was going on. Once a year or so I’ve made it my practice to do an informal sidewalk survey just outside the entrance of the Walmart close to my office. I typically try to talk briefly with 25 to 30 people, chosen at random. I’ve never argued that my surveys have any statistical legitimacy. They simply provide a casual snapshot of how a handful of blue-collar Americans—Walmart shoppers—tend to think.
This was the first time I’ve done such a survey away from my local base in Asheville, N.C. And I was startled at how little difference there was between Asheville and Philadelphia, in both the content and the attitude of those men and women with whom I talked.
Content. In my 25 to 30 mini-interviews, I was startled how little these folks knew about the basics. Only a handful of them even tried to summarize what a “fiscal cliff” was all about. Only one had even a remote idea what the term “Arab Spring” signified. Not a single one even tried to respond when I asked, “Do you ever worry that our government may be taking on too much of a European feel?” I was speaking a very foreign language.
These were not, after all, a bunch of adolescents. They were adult Americans, out shopping with their families. At least half of them had reached or were at least approaching what we call middle age. But for the most part, they were simply unable to use the common tools of conversation to talk about the world and the society in which they find themselves.
Attitude. Or maybe it wasn’t that they were unable to enter the discussion. Maybe they were just unwilling. James Devine’s grin when he told me he “didn’t have a clue” what the fiscal cliff was all about was disarming—but it was saddening and even a little bit chilling. How could someone live and listen through the countless news cycles of the last couple of months—during which the media have talked sometimes of little else—and not be ready at least to take a stab at the matter? And, yes, this man was quite specific when he said he had voted in last month’s election.
My Walmart poll this time around had virtually nothing to do with agreement or disagreement on the issues. This wasn’t about whether a Democratic president or a Republican Congress has the best ideas for rebuilding our nation’s economy. I would have enjoyed such a discussion, for sure. But this was emptiness. Walmart, Schmalmart! These were folks who seemed focused on little more than getting past the Salvation Army bell ringer without having to look him in the eye.
And maybe also getting past that guy from WORLD magazine with all those nosy and pesky questions. Well, you didn’t get by me either! Have a thoughtful Christmas.