What Americans Actually Want

This week I had Dr. Todd Rose on the podcast to discuss what Americans actually believe, as opposed to what they tell pollsters they believe.

This week I had Dr. Todd Rose, the co-founder of Populace, a think tank dedicated to building a world where all people have the chance to live fulfilling lives in a thriving society. During our discussion, he offered new insights into what Americans actually believe, as opposed to what they tell pollsters they believe.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: What is the difference between what people really believe versus what they tell pollsters—and why does it matter?

Todd: My view is that it's public opinion that really drives collective behavior. So it does matter what people are willing to say out loud. But here's the thing, if you believe what matters in a democracy, and in a free society, is that the public is largely getting to have their preferences and values realized…a sustainable free society requires delivering on the private aspirations, not just convincing people that they want something else. 

Matt: One of the things that you found is that, when divorced from social pressure, there is shocking agreement on our priorities. 

Todd: This was really surprising… If it would have been the case that what we found was just ridiculous divergence all over the place, that'd be okay, and we would talk about it. But…we looked at 55 possible attributes that a great society could have, and allow[ed] people to rank order them in a pretty clever way [and] the [of] top 10 across all those demographics, we have 8 in common. Like, I never would have imagined, and it's this really fabulous mix…of the sort of traditional American values, the egalitarian kind of individual rights. …So [take] something like healthcare, I was shocked at the level of unanimity in terms of support for high-quality healthcare for everyone. It is just a top five priority, it doesn't matter. Doesn't matter how you cut the data. So we've got this pretty fundamental agreement, but that's sitting beneath the sentiment of massive division, and we can talk next if you want, like, when you get into the politics, it's pretty interesting, because there are divisions.

Matt: Yeah, you know, this is something I've kind of discovered recently, believe it or not, because ever since Donald Trump came along, and I started writing critical things as a center-right opinion columnist about Trump, I started attracting readers who are progressives, and I got to know them on Twitter, as much as you can know, somebody on Twitter, and these are people that like 5 or 10 years ago, I would have seen as adversaries politically, we agree on so many fundamental things. It's been eye-opening for me. 

Todd: That's what's been surprising to me, right? Because I think what you and I probably share similar politics, and it's eye-opening, and we can speculate what is it about our politics that is so damn divisive? Because if it was organic, if it was just politics reflecting our differences, then you would see these differences manifest in these other demographic and different categories, but you just don't see it. It's very clear that what's going on is there's an intensity of disagreement on a narrow set of things. I mean, where we disagree, we really, really, really disagree. But that's being misread as breadth of difference…. It's like, listen, no, you disagree on a handful of things. You disagree on immigration, you disagree on border security, and once you start getting outside of this, you start to look very, very similar. 

Matt: There's some famous study where they ask people how much beer they drink in a week and they say like a six pack, maybe. And then they go look at their trash cans on the curb, and they actually drink, like a case a week. They're not lying on purpose, but they're not telling the truth, either. So I'm curious—obviously, we've seen a lot of failures of polling in recent years—talk about the methodology that you have employed to discover what people actually believe.

Todd: That's great. It's a good example, too, because, God forbid, you asked me how many beers I've had in the past. Here's the thing, first of all, this isn't piling on public opinion [surveys]. Public opinion does a really great service, and there are issues of sampling and waiting that need to be figured out. And I think that they're onto that. But when it comes to the social influence part, you just have to do more. And so let me give you one example, we have, you know, half a dozen methodologies that we like. But what I'm hoping is that this becomes a new trend. So this particular one is called Conjoint. And it's a method that's widely used in product development. So, you know, I've got my little iPhone right here, and when Apple decides, listen, you can't have everything, right. Like, you can't have a $10,000 iPhone. So it's like, Okay, what do you want an OLED screen? If you just ask me? I'd say, “Of course I do.” You'd say, “Well, do you want that more than longer battery life? You know, do you want it more than saving $200?” So what Conjoint does, is rather than just directly ask you a question, like, for example, do you care about health care? When we do this, when we ask all 55 of these directly, everything matters to everybody. So [instead] we take these 55 attributes, which we came up with as we studied every political party in the world, and then we distilled them down into 55. We did language testing to make sure there were no loaded terms, that they were all calibrated the right way. And if you're in this study, you'd look at a screen and it would say, “Okay, look, we're talking about the future of the country…what you'd see is a series of experiments where we'd say, “Here's Country A, Country B,” and you'd have five or six randomly generated attributes out of the 55. And same with the country B. And we just say, “Which one of those two is closer to your ideal America?” And then you do it again, and you do it again, and what you're able to do over time, is literally systematically compare every attribute against every other attribute. And why is this important? It does two things. Number one, it's almost impossible to game…. Second thing is that almost everything that matters in life is a tradeoff, right? If there's time, and money involved, you cannot have everything. And so what we want to know, is not just whether you want something or like something, but let's quantify that, let's rank it, let's give it a percentage, like, how much does this matter to you? And it's that combination that we believe gets at a far more accurate actionable understanding. Previous research (not from us), has shown that Conjoint is far better at predicting election results. The New York Times ran a big piece on it just like a year ago. So that's one methodology we deployed here. And again, I love it, because I'm always shocked. And the last thing I'll say is what we do that's a little bit different is we have you do that same task for yourself. And then we just ask yourself, “What do you think most Americans would say?” …And so you're basically doing two experiments, side by side. And then we can see okay, for Matt Lewis, here are your private rank order priorities for the future of America. And then we can see what you think the majority of Americans would rank as well. And so then we can start to where your values align with where you think the majority is. And are you even accurate? And so stuff like climate change was really surprising to me. It's the third most important priority for the future of the country. But it's perceived to be 33rd. 

Matt: Wow. Okay. Wow.

Todd: Even Trump voters—so we didn't go Democrat/Republican, because I was like, the divide right now is “Who did you vote for?” in the last election—even Trump voters have [climate change] in their top 15. They just think it's like the 14th most important priority to everybody else. So when you're operating on these kind of illusions, you can have a silent majority who wants something, but you will not get collective action, because they believe that most people are against it. The last thing I'll say about the illusion that I thought was fascinating is, for all the talk of Biden and unity, man, people do not care about unity for its own sake. Like that was privately in the bottom 10 of all priorities. What they do care about is getting back to treating each other with respect. That is a top 15 priority in every demographic we studied for both political parties. So you think well, wait a minute, if that matters so much, why aren't we treating each other with respect? It's because we believe it's a bottom 15 priority—we think most Americans don't care. Well, if I think most everybody else doesn't care about being respectful, it will impact my behavior for sure.

Matt: That is so interesting. So you say national unity is not a priority? Do you have a theory as to why that might be? 

Todd: Yeah, not only do we have some agreement on what really matters, we really agree on what doesn't matter. One is unity for its own sake, and we'll talk about that. The other one was American exceptionalism, the idea of international comparison, was bottom five. All those attributes like the wealthiest country in the world, the most powerful country in the world, those are the bottom five priorities for literally everybody. And yet, we think that we care about them. So let’s take the “unity” one, it's interesting, right? If I'm putting a sort of hopeful spin on this, the way I interpret it is that we don't actually have to agree on everything—that's not what we're asking for— but [we want] a little civility, right? We can disagree without being disagreeable, and the sense is that unity for its own sake would, in some sense, deny our human differences, right, it would deny those important political differences.

Matt: Assuming your interpretation is accurate, I actually think this is a positive finding.

Todd: And what I love is that you can't game this. …They just don't care [about “unity”]. And they know, nobody cares. You know, like, I think I would consider myself probably a bleeding heart libertarian, so the normal politics don't really appeal to me. But I kept thinking, when these results came out, I thought, “Well, you know what, man, Biden was on to something by and large, except for a couple of places, stop talking about unity and start talking about respect, right?” Because, if you think about it, like having ten Republicans to the White House as the first visitors. Right? They come out and say, “Listen, we didn't really agree on much, but we felt heard. Right, and we felt that's respect.” And that act probably mattered more to the populace than this phony show of unity.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.