Why do Americans feel good about their local communities, but bad about the nation?

November 7th, 2023 by Tom Lynch

There is something weird going on in America, and it’s bewildering to many.

Studies, surveys and polls are all showing that close to 90% of us are content with our lives and believe our communities and social surroundings are just fine, thank you very much.

At the same time, when asked about the trajectory of the country as a whole, just 18% say things are going in the right direction, while a whopping 79% say things are on the wrong track. Excuse me?

Let’s dig deeper.

If you wander America conducting more than 5,000 in-person interviews to get a sense of how content people are in their own lives and how they view their local and surrounding communities, and if you ask them their views on the health of the nation, and if you further examine local, state and national election results, and if in addition you study regional economics, you might learn some interesting things.

That is exactly what the American Communities Project (ACP) has been doing for the last year, and this week ACP published a report on the results of its year-long project.

The nation’s media tend to explain the divides in the United States in binary terms — red/blue, left/right, urban/rural. News stories discuss war between two conflicting “cultures.” Sometimes the stories include a third option for “independents” or “centrists.” But the ACP’s work reveals the views of Americans to be much more layered and heavily influenced by what type of community they live in throughout our more than 3,000 counties.  Looking closer, the ACP found the picture is far more complicated.

Headed by highly-respected data journalist Dante Chinni, the American Communities Project is based out of the Michigan State University School of Journalism. Chinni and his team have gone to great lengths to show the country’s fascinating nuance. Their research leads them to conclude there are at least 15 different types of communities, including College Towns, African-American South, Evangelical Hubs, Working Class Country, etc. Here is an ACP map showing the 15 Community Types spread out around the country’s more than 3,000 counties.

On the whole, three key points emerge from the ACP data — points that resonate with dissonance. From the ACP’s report:

  • Americans experience and perceive very different realities. The most pressing issues at the community level can vary greatly. And there is a perception-driven disconnect between big local and national issues. Inflation is seen as a top issue everywhere, but beyond that the numbers get very complicated. Some cite guns and gun violence. Others cite opioids and drug addiction. Taxes rate high in others. And, more broadly, there is a dissonance between national and local concerns that suggests many attitudes are driven more by perception than experience. Some issues that voters say are big ones nationally, such as immigration, don’t show up as big issues in any community (emphasis added).
  • Across communities, most people believe their lives are on the “right track,” but they are deeply concerned about the direction of the country. On the whole, people seem to feel good about their individual circumstances and pretty good about their community. But the views are much bleaker when the United States is the entity in question.
  • A series of statements about values reveal some broad areas of agreement — particularly around the economy and abortion. But others show wide disagreement. In total, there are nine statements in which every community type is in broad agreement (that is respondents in all types are either over or under the 50% mark). For instance, 50% or more in each community type say, “Obtaining an abortion should be a decision made by a woman in consultation with her doctor, without government’s involvement.” But 10 other statements show differences across ACP community types, some massive. “The right to own a firearm is central to what it means to be an American,” is one such statement.

The ACP project asked two overarching questions of people throughout the 15 identified Community Types. First, what are the “most important issues facing your local community?” And second, what are the “most important issues facing the country as a whole?”

As ever, there is a great divide between perception and reality. On the whole, the reality of one’s local community is undisputed, but reality beyond one’s own environment is not directly known; it is perceived and shaped by what I call the echosystem of our media, especially social media.

Take immigration and crime for example. These are two of the central talking points of the Republican Party as it lurches toward picking a standard bearer for the 2024 election, winning the Senate, and keeping control of the House.

In 14 of the 15 Community Types, the ACP project finds only 11% of Americans see “immigration” as one of the most important issues facing their local community. The one exception is the Hispanic Centers, many concentrated near the border, where 21% cite immigration. However, when the question turns to issues facing the country, the immigration number jumps to 23%, and some of the numbers are much higher. In the Evangelical Hubs, 33% say immigration is one of the most important issues.

Regarding “crime or gun violence,” there is a similar disconnect. In 13 of the 15 Community Types, 21% of Americans rate it as one of the “most important issues.” Here, the exceptions are the African American South and Big Cities. Consider this from the Report:

But as an issue facing the country, “crime or gun violence” is nine points higher, with 30% of Americans saying it is an issue of national import. The figure jumps 14 percentage points in Rural Middle America, from 11% as a community issue to 25% as a national one. The number climbs 13 percentage points in the Exurbs, from 17% as a community issue to 30% as an issue for the country. The number jumps 12 percentage points in the blue-collar Middle Suburbs from 23% to 35%. In fact, the number of people concerned about crime as a national issue is higher than the figures for crime as a local community issue in every type except the African American South, where the number is essentially the same at the national and community levels.

What do Americans cite as the Number 1 issue facing both their local communities and the nation? Inflation. Look at the following two charts, the first asking Americans their views on five major issues within their local communities, the second asking the same questions about the nation as a whole. Note the role of inflation, as well as the differing answers regarding immigration and crime.

The ACP project validates with actual data what to many is intuitive: Americans believe what they see with their own eyes in their local and surrounding communities, but have fallen for the political propaganda spouted by far-right, conservative commentators and opportunistic, hypocritical politicians who continually paint a bleak picture of America.

Separating truths from lies has become much more difficult in recent years as more and more Americans shift away from mainstream media as a reliable place to get their news. In 2020, the Pew Research Center reported roughly a third of U.S. adults (31%) said they regularly got news from Facebook. A quarter of U.S. adults regularly got news from YouTube, while smaller shares got news from Twitter (14%), Instagram (13%), TikTok (10%) or Reddit (8%). This drift to often unreliable sources, a move deep into the echosystem, has only grown since the Pew report of 2020.

Throughout history, repeatedly spewing lies has proven quite effective at swaying the masses. Given the current diffuse and dispersed sources of alleged news with which we are constantly bombarded, it is now even easier to persuade someone into believing something they might have wanted to believe in the first place.

Americans are smart, but they are facing a cascading avalanche of mis- and dis-information. In this new era of exploding social media and artificial intelligence where anything is digitally doable, is it even remotely possible to slow, let alone reverse, what appears to be a relentless slide toward a day when perception eviscerates reality?

I wish I knew.