WASHINGTON—Confused by the federal health care law? How about the debate over NSA surveillance? The way the Federal Reserve affects interest rates?
You’re far from alone.
Most Americans say the issues facing the country are getting harder to fathom.
It’s not just people who’ve tuned out politics who feel perplexed. Those paying attention—people who vote regularly, follow news about November’s midterm election, or simply feel a civic duty to stay informed—are most likely to say that issues have become “much more complicated” over the last decade, an Associated Press-GfK poll shows.
Why are things such a muddle?
Karla Lynn of Lavaca, Arkansas, blames politicians who would rather snipe at each other than honestly explain the nation’s problems in straightforward terms.
“They’ll spin everything,” said Lynn, 61, a retired product developer. “You’ve got to wade through so much muck to try to find the truth.”
It’s a big swamp to wade through.
David Stewart blames the deluge from social media, partisan blogs and 24-hour news sites for complicating things. At one time people would only see a news story about a violent group like the Islamic State, he said, but now they watch the militants’ videos of beheadings online.
“People get a little overwhelmed by all the information about what’s going on in the world,” said Stewart, 40, a salesman at a home improvement store in Georgetown, Kentucky. The father of three said it takes time from an already busy life to go online and sort out “what’s fluff, what’s been engineered, and what’s actually true and believable.”
The issue that stumps Stewart most? President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. It can sound like a tragedy or a godsend, depending whether Republicans or Democrats are talking about it.
Nearly three-fourths of Americans find it difficult, according to the AP-GfK poll, and about 4 in 10 say it’s “very hard” to understand.
One obvious reason: The law really is complex. Politicians even say so.
Republicans were condemning “Obamacare” as a regulatory morass even before it passed. When the federal website enrolling people crashed last year, Obama himself pointed to the enormous size of the undertaking. “It’s complicated,” he said. “It’s hard.”
Politicians do try to make issues sound simpler. They like to invoke your own family budget when talking about the national debt.
But in the AP-GfK poll, confidence in dealing with household problems didn’t offer much help in understanding national matters. For example, most under age 30 said it’s easy to protect your privacy and financial information online. But most young adults think it’s hard to understand the National Security Agency’s data collection programs. Americans over age 50 find both personal computer security and the NSA issue difficult.
The interest rates you pay? Wealthier people are more likely to find rates on personal loans easy to understand. But the poll shows no difference by income in comprehending the Fed’s interest rate policy.
And then there are the international problems that ensnare the U.S.
In his speech to the United Nations last week, Obama spoke of terrorists in Iraq and Syria as the type of danger that threatens a faster-paced, interconnected world.
What began 13 years ago as a U.S. campaign to destroy al-Qaida has evolved into battles against numerous offshoots.
“Right now, in my estimation, the problems are much more variegated and much more complex and diffuse than they’ve ever been,” said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University historian who has studied terrorism for four decades.
Among Americans strongly interested in political news, nearly 6 in 10 say political issues facing the United States are “much more complicated” than a decade ago.
Of course, creating Medicare and waging the Cold War weren’t easy, either.
Perhaps nostalgia blurs people’s judgment of current troubles?
Sheila Suess Kennedy, director of the Indiana University Center for Civic Literacy, thinks there’s more to it.
“Not only are we dealing with a more complex environment, we are dealing with a more ambiguous environment,” Kennedy said. “People want ‘this is good and this is bad.’ Increasingly we live with ‘there’s black and there’s white and there’s a whole lot of grey.”‘
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted July 24-28 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Results from online interviews with 1,044 adults have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed online. Some question wording used in this survey comes from the General Social Survey, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost.
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com