Franke: A Postive Thought

January 6, 2021

by Mark Franke

Dark. Depressing. Frightening. These are just a few of the adjectives people are using to describe 2020 as it passes into a bad memory for all of us. Most, though, will follow with a more positive statement about what 2021 is expected to bring.

Perhaps this incipient optimism reflects the rolling out of a vaccine which we all hope will be effective at a nearly 100 percent rate. Or maybe it is just the optimism that is part of the American spirit breaking through the gloom.

The latter is what I want to believe but a recent Gallup poll suggests that I am wrong . . . again.

Every November since 2001, the Gallup organization has polled Americans on their sense of mental health. Now this is a self-assessment, not a clinical diagnosis, but it certainly provides insight in how Americans feel about themselves and their prospects moving forward.

What Gallup found is that in this year’s poll the lowest percentage of Americans classify their mental health as good or excellent since polling started. The drop from last year was eight percentage points, which is more significant than the raw number would imply.

The drop was consistent across all demographic categories — gender, race, political affiliation, age, income and marital status. That is, consistent but for two outliers. 

Democrats didn’t move much in terms of their attitudes. Of course this polling was done immediately after the election so there is some post-election euphoria at work here, I’m sure. One wonders how these Democrats would respond now that Donald Trump has replaced Barack Obama as the most admired man in America, according to another recent Gallup poll.

What I wonder is why Republicans and Independents dropped by double digits. OK, so Joe Biden won the White House but nearly all the down ballot results showed Republican gains. I suspect it is a manifestation of our “winner take all” attitude about nearly everything these days.

There is some bad news for Democrats, however. Even now they still score lower in mental health attitudes than Republicans and Independents. The difference between the two parties is 12 percent even after a 15 percent drop by Republicans. Why do Democrats feel so much worse about themselves than Republicans? I shouldn’t hazard a guess in print but I have an opinion or two, one of which is documented in Gallup’s results.

The only group which actually improved its mental health assessment was regular church goers. These are people who attend worship services every week so maybe constantly hearing the message that a loving God is still in charge of His creation has taken hold. It’s curious that monthly attenders dropped as much as non-attenders. Their base score is higher than the completely secular respondents, but still . . .

Republicans tend to be more religious than Democrats, or maybe it is that religious people are more likely to vote Republican than Democrat. COVID decrees by liberal Democrat governors restricting First Amendment religious freedom can only push this dichotomy further along, regardless of which is the chicken or the egg.

Additional Gallop findings instruct us that men are more confident of their mental health than women and married people more so than singles. Higher income people are more positive than those in the lower income categories but that gap narrowed in 2020. 

Age is the confusing one. All groupings dropped by about the same percentage but the 50-64 are significantly more positive than those older and younger. The other groupings have about the same base scores, which doesn’t make sense to me. In my experience, partially empirical at best, I find that Millennials are the most frightened by the pandemic. This is a generalization and everyone knows that all generalizations are false. But it is observable, even by someone who doesn’t get out much these days.

Perhaps the most encouraging breakdown is the one between whites and non-whites. This gap, small to begin with, narrowed even more. Maybe everything in this nation shouldn’t get reduced to an unbridgeable chasm between the races, critical race theory or not.

When I mentioned this poll at a New Year’s Eve socially responsible gathering of a handful of retired couples, the responses ranged from “Who cares?” to “Oh. Demographics.” Maybe everyone is simply tired of the steady barrage of bad news and the political bickering it fosters.

And maybe, just maybe, we will use the advent of 2021 as a clarion call to take responsibility upon ourselves both individually and communally to make things better for us all. That sounds like a better plan than sitting around depressing ourselves even further.

I, for one, won’t let a physical lockdown induce a psychological one. There is still a lot of good that can be done, mask or no mask. And most of it can be done safely at a six-foot distance. 

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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